On the Bummel
In honour of the Tour de France, I shall take a bummel through some literary cycling. What is a bummel? It’s a leisurely stroll or trip. Jerome K Jerome takes one through Germany with his friends George and Harris in ‘Three Men on the Bummel’, a sequel to a comic favourite of mine, ‘Three Men in a Boat.’ It was nearly as celebrated as the original when it was published in 1900 but is little read now and I have to confess it is still on my ‘to read one day’ list.
Many bikes in literature come in stories written around the turn of the century when cycling was a new craze. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote two Sherlock Holmes stories involving bikes. In ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’ Sherlock deduces she rides by the wear on her shoes and solves the mystery of why a bearded cyclist is following her every day. . In ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’, a kidnapping tale, Sherlock has to look carefully at the marks left by different tyres to solve the mystery.
H.G Well’s ‘The Wheels of Chance’ came out in 1896. It’s a comic “bicycling idyll” featuring a draper’s assistant called Hoopdriver who undertakes a cycling tour of the south coast and saves a young lady cyclist from a would-be seducer.
A fleet of bicycles stars in one of my favourite scenes from ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ Mark Twain (1889). The Yankee has travelled in time and is introducing King Arthur’s Court to the benefits of modern technology. He and the King are travelling in disguise and in danger of being executed when ‘’ by George! here they came, a-tilting!—five hundred mailed and belted knights on bicycles! The grandest sight that ever was seen. Lord, how the plumes streamed, how the sun flamed and flashed from the endless procession of webby wheels!’’
Bikes feature in two books from the Queens of Crime: ‘Five Red Herrings’ by Dorothy Sayers where the solution to the murder involves timing a top speed cross country bike ride and Marjorie Allingham’s ‘Dancers in Mourning’ in which an actor who is the president of a cycling club is murdered with an exploding bicycle.
Cycling, in particular the introduction of the ‘safety bicycle’ in the 1880s, made a huge difference to women. John Galsworthy in ‘The Forsyte Saga’ writes ‘Under its influence, wholly or in part, have wilted chaperons, long and narrow skirts, tight corsets, hair that would have come down, black stockings, thick ankles, large hats, prudery and fear of the dark; under its influence, wholly or in part, have bloomed week-ends, strong nerves, strong legs, strong language, knickers, knowledge of make and shape, knowledge of woods and pastures, equality of sex, good digestion and professional occupation–in four words, the emancipation of woman.”
I met this again reading ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ recently (James Hilton, 1934) when the Victorian school-master meets his future wife: ‘He was a quiet, conventional person, and the world, viewed from the haven of Brookfield, seemed to him full of distasteful innovations; there was a fellow named Bernard Shaw who had the strangest and most reprehensible opinions; there was Ibsen, too, with his disturbing plays; and there was this new craze for bicycling which was being taken up by women equally with men. Chips did not hold with all this modern newness and freedom.’ He falls in love and marries this alarming ‘New Woman’ though.
More recently, you could try ‘The White Woman on the Green Bicycle’, by Monique Roffey which tells the story of Sabine Harwood, who in the 1950s travels from Britain to make a new life in Trinidad with her husband George. Always an outsider, she cycles everywhere and becomes famous with the locals as “the white woman who rides everywhere on her green bicycle” or ‘Gold’ by Chris Cleave. This is set at an Olympic Velodrome where Kate and Zoe, who have trained together for years are in competition in their last race. Each wants desperately to win gold, and each has more than a medal to lose.
There are lots of children’s books with bikes in because riding your first bike is such a childhood milestone. My favourite is from the wonderful Quentin Blake. In ‘Mrs Armitage on Wheels’ she decides that ‘what this bike needs’ is a horn, a bathroom, a picnic, a seat for her dog, an umbrella, a sail…children will love waiting for the inevitable crash!
Wherever you are heading this weekend, enjoy your bummel!