The Man Who Loved Bicycles: culture by bike
February 12, 2007
[$20.] By Daniel Behrman. This is a rare first edition, but most of my copies are ex-library or rather well-used. Still, it's the only way to get a copy of this hardcover book from 1972, done on nice paper in dark green text ink with some neat etchings throughout.
Its subhead is "the memoirs of an autophobe."
So it's about both bike love and car hate.
And everything in between. Which is a lot.
Actually, it's not bike love or car hate per se, but it's what these devices can do for us or to us.
His bike love is built around the neighborliness that bikes inspire and the village scale of life that is built around non-car transit.
Behrman's writing includes plenty of boats and trains, for instance. Which he would include in with the bike.
For him the car might not be so wretched as a work of metal---except that he would likely see its coccooning effect as bad from the start---it's the fact that it has destroyed the cities of the world that bothers him.
He's happy to see cars used as tools in any trade, as needed.
Whups, I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual.
Behrman worked at UNESCO for decades, traveling between NYC and Paris. He saw a lot of the world. He died in 1990.
Some say this book contains some of the wild idealistic excess of the 1970's, and I agree that a few of the solutions he poses have that flavor, but I'm more impressed by how the message is still right for us. It's nice that LA has, since then, acquired clear skies, but we have a long way to go to rebuild our cities.
Mostly I like this book because of its writing. The particulars of politics never interest me and I don't consider them relevant to the OYB take on things anyway. Culture leads politics by far. This book beautifully gives us a window to a bike's-eye view of the world. What is bike scale all about? Find it here.
It also has the tastiest vituperation against cars. Try to relax as you read it. Enjoy its over the top flavor. After all, "cars for everyone" is a world destroying idea. The car deserves everything we can heap on it. ...And so do we, for falling for it. A good venting is always in order. Especially since for now a lot of us are stuck with the darn things, even if it is pretty easy to not use them locally a lot of the time.
The chapters of the book switch between car hate and bike love. Actually, they mix it up, but there's some big picture structure like that. A good warning is that chapters One and Two are centered around car hate. Some folks have found that offputting. It was hard for me. He really hits his stride, and hits the ball out of the park, with Chapter 3, which is about neighborhoods.
Excerpt from Ch. 11 "Flying Blind"
The advantages of using your own bike is that you have a taxi in your pocket when you travel by train. I have gone to Bordeaux and Saarbrücken from Paris, riding down to the station on a folding bike and putting it into the compartment where it sat over my fellow passengers' heads. They did not know that the damn thing weighed thirty-five pounds, but I did, and I sweated blue until I got it strapped into place. I have since traded it in for a take-apart model that is easier to stow and also easier to carry because the load can be shared by two hands.
Once on a New Year's Eve, I took a trip to London on the night ferry from Paris with the photographer. We pedaled up to the wagons-lits at Gare du Nord in Paris. The conductor looked at us, he asked us where we intended to put those bicycles. "In ze pockette," said the photographer, talking English so that he would take her for a foreigner. We did wedge them into the compartment before the train started for Dunkirk, where our sleeping cars would go aboard a ship to Dover. The night ferry is my favorite travel experience. In one night it offers the Orient Express, the Queen Mary, and the Flying Scotsman: French train, Channel crossing, British train, a breakfast at sea, another in England.
On the ferry, the crew had celebrated New Year's Eve on a previous voyage a few hours before. Mistletoe was swaying in the main salon or, perhaps, it stayed still, stabilized, while the ship rolled in the swell, her starboard side bared to the north wind. In the salon, two men were asleep in armchairs, their heads wrapped in their scarves to keep out the light. They might have been decapitated, one had his scarf tied in a giant necktie knot with only thin air above it. Their legs were crossed on the edges of their chairs, their umbrellas were crossed on the edge of their table, on the table two half-empty beer glasses, two cans of Ballantine's, one bottle of perfume, probably, wrapped in green-and-white-striped paper, a bowler hat planted on top of the package. The photographer was planted against the far wall, trying to sketch it all, kicking herself, kicking me, because we had decided not to bring the cameras on this jaunt to London. She had only the human eye and hand to try to recall a scene that needed a Cartier-Bresson.
At Victoria Station, we pedaled off the train and through customs on our two-wheeled luggage carts. We moved up Regent Street to Oxford Circus, then down New Oxford Street at a slow roll, stopping, window-shopping. ...