To be honest, I was thinking of writing to you about my shoes. I have quite a lot to say about my shoes, the shoes that I have and the shoes I have had. I think there is a post in that subject, but I am going to set that aside and save it for another day.
When I said to my partner this morning, ‘I am going to write my blog’, and mentioned the fact that, as is often the case, I don’t know what I am going to write about, my partner said: “write about the little boy we saw in the park”. I knew just what my partner meant by this, and, because I like the idea of writing based on someone else’s intervention or directive, I am going to try and satisfy this request.
What, or rather who, or whom my partner meant by “the little boy in the park” was really two little boys. I am not that good at judging the ages of children, but I would say that one was about 3 years old and the other was about 5 (though they could have been 4 and 6, or even 2 and 4). I assume that they were brothers and they were playing, on their bicycles, exploring the potential of a man-made hill in the park.
Now, I am not that good at describing hills either, but I will have a go. The hill in question is maybe 15 meters high and the side on which the children were playing inclines at an angle of, hmmmmm, I would say about 40 degrees. Numerous joggers and walkers have worn paths into the hill, but you’d have to be brave or reckless to go down one of them on a bicycle. But that’s exactly what these two little boys were doing.
The older boy had two bikes, which he used interchangeably. One was a full bike with pedals and brakes, but the other was one of those trainer bikes, that has no pedals and no brakes and is designed to gather quiet confidence using the feet to remain upright and to move forwards, without having to fully balance . Meanwhile, the smaller boy had only his tiny trainer bike, again, with no pedals or brakes.
My partner and I had been relaxing in the park, not walking for a change but instead watching a quite skilful and lively game of soccer. Gradually however, these two little boys arrested our attention, not least because we feared for their safety every time they courageously hauled their bikes to the top of the hill and let themselves zoom down it, using various improvised techniques to keep themselves upright and on-board while travelling as fast as possible down the slope.
Anxious for their well-being, especially for the little one, we looked around for their guardian but could only see a figure standing hundreds of yards away, who seemed to be exchanging glances with them, and who might have just been their guardian. If so, this ‘responsible adult’ seemed to have purposefully abandoned the children to their own sense of risk and adventure, perhaps with the aim of instilling in them some sense of confidence and ability to take risks, to go out on a limb and to learn instinctively and by making mistakes (as some parents bravely baptise their babies in a swimming pool to accelerate their swimming ability) .
Interestingly, neither of the children did make any mistakes. Instead, they seemed highly skilled, to an amazing degree given their age, at maximising thrills while avoiding disasters. By the time they reached the bottom of the steep hill path, where it levelled out into the flat grass and met a busy pathway, they were travelling very fast (it’s hard to say how many mph). They could also have been in danger of colliding with adult cyclists who occasionally passed that way, or of losing control and veering into one of several nearby picnicking groups.
As I watched, I recalled, still with some embarrassment, that I hadn’t learned to ride a bicycle until I was 11 years old. Why? Had I really been so timid? I knew that, part of the reason was that I simply didn’t have a bicycle as a kid. There had been a tricycle that I had loved, as a toddler, and lost (my first tragic relationship break-up) when it was stolen, but then there was a huge gap of maybe 8 or 9 years when bikes and bike culture seem never to have crossed my mind or my path, until a two-wheeled bicycle appeared, (with some sense of fanfare, as my dad had really splashed-out, as ever, using some kind of credit-scheme to buy it).
At that time, bikes were suddenly trendy. The revolutionary, best-selling Raleigh ‘Chopper’ (now a design classic) had made a bike a ‘must-have’, though dad bought me (and my closest brother) ‘more sensible’ racing-style bikes on which he probably hoped we might go touring. In actual fact, we never learned how to really explore and exploit those bikes, nor to maintain them, but bumped their poor thin wheels up and down far too many of the council estate’s kerbstones (competing with the Choppers) and quite soon wrecked them – the fate of so many affordable or downright cheap things in the household of my childhood and adolescence.
I do recall one adventurous ride out into the nearby countryside, and one (just one) fearful and exciting ride down a notoriously long and vertiginous local hill. I also recall a strangely ill-informed, bleak and dusty ride along a major A-Road, filled with massive dirty trucks and jammed with commuting cars as my brother and I and another friend sought to prove that we could cycle all the way in to London from our satellite estate, sited about 20 – 30 miles to the East of the metropolis.
I also recall that it was a visiting uncle, and not my mum or dad or friend or elder brother who had belatedly taught me to ride a two-wheeled bicycle aged 11. Visiting uncles of course always have a little more time and patience than your dad to do such things. Whose bike it was, I don’t know? Perhaps one borrowed from an elder brother. My dad, my uncle and I – and probably a few other siblings – were walking down a long, straight, poplar-lined lane where we often used to go on ‘nature walks’. My uncle found a way of supporting me and running along with me until such time as I was riding alone and hadn’t realised that he had let go of the bike. It was a wonderful moment, that I’m sure many others have experienced in a similar way.
Now, when I think of it, there must have been something special about acquiring that special new skill and that magical moment of freedom at such a late age, and of being able to experience and appreciate it with that level of maturity, whereas, the little children in the park I saw yesterday will probably never recall this moment in their own lives because it happened when they were so young.
Before I finish here, I just want to also mention a memorable description, written by my hero Walter Benjamin, of a highly dressed menagerie of upper-middle-class (or haute bourgeois) Berliners, around the turn of the (19th into the 20th) century, training, with as much grace and gentility as they could muster and with some corresponding level of farce, to ride bicycles within the safety, luxury and privacy of what must have been one of the first ever purpose-built velodromes – with a shining wooden floor. The passage appears in one of his two or three main writings of his childhood memories of Berlin, and I recommend reading it, not least for its great sense of absurdity.