I’ve just acquired a Raleigh DL-1 Tourist, like the one in the picture, from Mr. Bob Beechy of St George, Ontario, through an advert in an online marketplace.
Mr. Beechy proved to be one of those characters with a passion for mechanical things with whom it is delightful to discuss such a mutual interest as bicycles. He designs and makes ingenious pedal-powered vehicles with many gears, horizontal in outline, complete with fairing like an old Messerschmidt. With the Raleigh—which it will take some effort to keep as clean and shiny as he kept it—Mr. Beechy gave me a bag of spare parts, hard-to-find pads, for example, for the peculiar rod-linked brakes, an extra rear hub incorporating a coaster brake if I should want to replace the one installed.
Mr. Beechy had mentioned a documentary film of 1945 about the making of Raleighs at their factory in Nottingham, in its day one of the wonders of vertically integrated mass production in the world. We watched the film that night. It made me think of other celebrations of work: the great 1936 GPO film unit’s Night Mail, with music by Benjamin Britten and poem by W.H.Auden; the classic book of 1930 about an earlier age of craft production, George Sturt’s The Wheelwright Shop. As happens once you start these things, I remembered too Swedish archival footage from 1932 of a wheelwright making the hub for a wagon wheel. Not exactly the mass-produced Sturmey-Archer three-speed hubs of Nottingham, but the same intelligible fitness for function, the same assumption of timelessness, the same beauty inherent in the necessary. Also arresting from the Nottingham film, images of boys, perhaps fifteen, sixteen years old, with good jobs and steady futures, making things—a way of life as gone as the bicycles they made.
Riding a bike. Was there ever anything a purer experience of freedom? A more unequivocal command of distance, of privacy, of independence? We happened to watch recently Hiroshima, mon amour, the Resnais/Duras film from 1959 with Emmanuelle Riva. What people commonly remark from that film is the opening shot, naked bodies glittering as though covered in radioactive dust. I always think instead of the scene from the flashback sequence, Riva as a girl in Nevers, on her bicycle, down a path through the trees, flying to the rendezvous with her German lover. Oui, jeune à Nevers, she remembers. Et puis aussi, une fois, folle à Nevers.