Some streets are faster than others
8th August, 2003
Grinding. A trail of blood. Shocked faces turn away.
Something's going to happen: a lorry veers off course, the breeze picks up,
the bicycle will give way. We fall
under the wheels. A dull bump.
The rider, pulp. The bicycle, shattered.
Something's going to happen, one day.
I clamp on my helmet. It's early, Sunday morning, a clear day, the traffic minimal. I set off, south to Islington.
The Victorian terraces do not stir as the inhabitants lie on, digesting the pleasures
of last night. There are lots of trees here. Squares of black railings. The boutique restaurants of Upper
Street flash past, slumbering, gathering strength for the endless Sunday breakfasts of muesli and ciabatta
and iced cappuccino to come. Froth.
I test my brakes on the way. I fitted all-weather Kool-stops six years ago and they're hardly worn.
I lift my hands off the handlebars and the bike runs true, regardless. I love this bike. I abuse it like
a needy lover and
it stays faithful. A series of road bumps come on. I rise in the footstraps, up and down, and
we jockey over each jump, together. I put the bike through a series of semi-circles, and we spiral through
the empty streets, together.
A Square Mile of Solitude
The City of London. A mausoleum of glass and ambition. The banks and insurance houses crowd like impatient bulls on either side,
as I descend in long turns to the river.
A Japanese woman wanders around clutching her guidebook. She doesn't know not to here on a Sunday. Noone comes here on a Sunday.
Deep below us live the ashes and skulls and riverine mud of two thousand years of city dwellers, holding up
all the hopes of their descendants. Fast bend, left, southwest to south. I stamp hard on the right pedal and lean forward-left to
swoop through the turn.
Blackfriars bridge. Someone, who likes a joke, put the cycle lane straight down the middle, sandwiched
between lorries and bus drivers. Cross-breeze to shit and get caught in their wheels. The driver wouldn't notice.
Something could happen here. The bicycle, crushed. The rider, pulped.
It's exciting to be alive today. Southwark, Borough. Strollers, aimless between the width of the Thames and the market stalls and hawkers and skateboard guys.
I slow down, weave in and out, dodge the obstacles. The Tate Modern hunches above me, a tyrant of brick with bowels cramped in colour and pornography.
Walkers multiply ahead as I slow down to crawl, then dismount. I wheel the bike, enjoying the sun on the water. A treasure in shimmering gold, all mine.
Cobblestones now as I follow the river to Bermondsey.
The bike shakes as I ease it on. Alleyways, warehouses.
The produce of an empire flowed through here. Now language students gaze into shop windows, mouthing unfamiliar English words
to describe the lives they can't afford.
Junior bankers worry about their next bonus, worry if can they can keep living like this, worry whether
this is how they ever wanted to live at all. The Mayor of London has built a glass tower that looks like a ship.
Forever setting sail, forever going nowhere. A funfair whirls in front of it, a casual mockery.
After Tower Bridge there's another section of fashionable warehouse living, and then I'm clear again. No more pedestrians. Not yet.
Move forwards. The air whistles as I accelerate, riverbank to street to riverbank again as the path cuts and twists
ahead of me. It ends and starts quickfire and I stamp hard, left, right, lurching and
hauling on the handlebars from one corner to another. Laughing out loud.
"What? Get up early and cycle? On a Sunday??" She thought I was mad. Last night was Saturday night. Mit's birthday. Someone had decided
we weren't happy enough and bought us two tequila shots, each. And then two more. Now we were downstairs and I was dancing and talking, and above all,
gesticulating. Some demon had made a power out of me.
"What could possibly be better than cycling on a Sunday??" I drew myself up magnificently (I stumbled around and balanced for a second on one leg.)
"Sex." The young woman, my new acquaintance, peered up at me. I gestured proudly (I threw my hand around like a maniac.)
"Ha! Obligation! Responsibility! No... I want freedom! To move in all directions... as I choose!!" I was possessed, I was an orator. (I was a drunk.)
Freedom. Heh. I smiled now on my bike, remembering the last crashing dance, as I demonstrated my
version of the 'Ace of Spades'. Sex... hold on a minute, had that been an offer?? I pulled up short and sighed.
Typical. Damn all alcohol anyway.
Deptford was once home to the Royal Naval Yards. Weeds and cracked pavements and silt-up dreams. I blast along the road to Greenwich,
another gravemarker of past glory. The air is free here, with a hint of the sea. You're clear of the city.
When I take off my helmet to walk around, a cupful of hot perspiration runs out and down my face. The Naval College, the Queen's House and the Royal
Observatory rise, one above the other like a synchronised display of white marble. I think of all the young men who passed
through this place, wild in their desire to master the sea. To move anywhere, in all directions, as they wished, free... Most of them in bits now, at the bottom.
All to the sacrifice.
North to the Tunnel
I jog the bike through the tunnel, and emerge on the north bank again. Spin round the Isle of dogs, on and off a
riverside path again, stamp hard and cut, onto the river and into the streets. People have emerged now, still heavy with
last night. I should be too, but the blood rages fiercely now, chased on by the two hours cycle. The river spears silver to
the west and back to the city and I pause there, at limehouse basin, reluctant to leave it.
Limehouse floats from dazzling rich to grinding poor within a few streets. I skirt the
rough streets quickly, and onto the Regent's canal. This is a cycle accelerator, an
uninterrupted canal towpath that I can follow for seven miles going faster, going faster, as all the
East End seems to flash by.
Faster. People wandering, bargemen's pubs, sunbathers in parks.
Faster. Long bends and bumps. Faster. The bike is wielded to me, a living missile, faster and faster.
Islington, I emerge... the sun is high above, my is body erect, arms stretched out, wind between my fingers
and I float spiralling on the roads. Home. One day something will happen and this will end, but not today, not today. Freedom is the power
to move in all directions at once, when you want, as you want. Whatever the sacrifice.
Some streets are faster than others.
Hat & Spoon