just off glasgow's sauchiehall street, past what used to be menzies the newsagent, before it became w h smith, is cambridge street. in the days before recessions did away with most of glasgow's large department stores, in the lower ground floor of littlewoods, stood a record shop, the name of which completely escapes me. however, its name is somewhat irrelevant to the following diatribe.
teenagers nowadays have had the endless joy of rifling through racks of long playing records (colloquially known as vinyl) utterly removed from their ascendant years. presently, it's a case of sitting in front of a computer, clicking links on itunes, or amazon's mp3 section; then it was many an hour in record shops. during one of those time-wasting periods when in glasgow for the day, in the aforesaid record store, i came upon a white card sleeve (the ones with the hole in the centre displaying the record label) containing two lps, and with the words steve reich and drumming written in biro at the top. an enclosed booklet gave credence to the notion that there should have been a third disc in the set, but it was consipcuous by its absence.
i have always professed an interest in jazz, even during my late teenage years, an interest that was sadly not balanced by any knowledge of which i professed to speak or listen. the possibility here was that steve reich was a part of some obscure quartet or trio (the album was filed in the jazz section), but the title of the music enclosed surely made it obvious that reich was a drummer, and presumably one of repute, to have been allowed to ply his trade over two black discs. to confuse matters further, the label was deutsche grammophon, more readily predisposed to the classical genre.
anyway, due to the missing lp and original sleeve, the purchase price was low enough to take a chance. for those familar with the works of steve reich, you will currently be sniggering at my teenage naivety. one of the more prominent practitioners of what has been described as minimalism, reich's drumming confounded the heck out of me. there is no drum kit anywhere to be heard. the piece starts with a few notes played on small african type drums, addidng notes until a repetitive pattern is formed, at which point other drummers join in playing the original pattern but displaced from drummer number one.
when variations on the drums had all but been exhausted, a similar modus operandi was implemented on marimba, moving to xylophone, glockenspiel, and ultimately, the whole lot altogether on side four by way of a reprise of all that had gone before.
minimalism. an acquired taste.
i am not ashamed to say that i have acquired that taste; even at this very moment, reich's music for eighteen musicians and the four sections, occupy hallowed space on my ipod, and i eagerly await the 27th of this month when i intend to download comparably esteemed member of the minimalist club, philip glass's cello concerto. this will either have raised my profile in the eyes of the post's readership, or confined me to the hopelessly eccentric bin.
ken and maureen nichols' mud, sweat and gears is perhaps a literary equivalent of minimalist thinking. and i mean that as a compliment. commencing with seasons 50/51 and 53/54, their history of the british cyclocross association inhabits similar ground; basically, each season works in a similar way, but there are interesting fluctuations along the way. nothing startling happens throughout the narrative, unless the changing colours of the annual handbook fit that description. but the main thread of the book becomes utterly addictive, the further into its pages delving proceeds; variations on a theme. it also throws up some marvellous idiosyncracies. 'only man to finish saturday's nine and a half miles warwickshire race was keith edwards. all the other competitors lost their way!'
the early days of cross were often graced by top level road professionals such as raphael geminiani and luxemburger, charly gaul. the latter apparently enjoyed his days of getting muddy, despite breaking his collar-bone three times, stating "it was all my own fault. i was too daring, there are some risks you can take in cyclo-cross and some you cannot, unless you want to end up in hospital."
the comparison with minimalism is borne out; over the period of the composition, little appears to change. in the late nineteen eighties an event in worcestershire was bedevilled by deep overnight drifts of snow, covering many of the direction signs. in keeping with the tradition of little or nothing stopping a cross event, the race set off and a breakaway group formed. however, turning up a cart track, they met the main group coming in the opposite direction. everyone stopped, discussed the situation, then returned to the start for clearer instruction.
the nichols have done their research; lots of it. much, if not all has been gleaned from the pages of cycling weekly or whatever its masthead proclaimed at the time, along with an almost forensic dissection of handbooks, event programmes and newspaper articles, as well as one or two television broadcasts. in so doing , they may have become something of a negative advertisement for their own efforts. witness the introduction: 'i would like to think that readers interested in the history of cyclo-cross will come back to this book and use it as a reference source. to be able to check on the champions, races or details of a favourite rider or event, and for this reason, i have shown every season as a separate section'
i will confess to reading this introduction and having palpitations regarding the joy of investigating the subsequent pages. however, i was happily quite wrong in my assumptions; mud, sweat and gears is a most satisfying read in an almost parochial way. its chapters, if nothing else, prove how british cyclo-cross has gone from being a minority of minority sports and slowly but surely inveigled its way into the british racing psyche, becoming just as much a mainstay of competitive cycling as the premier calendar. in modern times, it arguably rivals the once nascent sport of cross-country mountain biking.
however, all is not perfect in the land of cyclo-cross history. in the good old days of typewriters, the only way to signify the end of one sentence and the start of the next was to hit the spacebar twice, a practice known as double-spacing. with the advent of word processing and desktop publishing, this practice became null and void; computer typefaces have the necessary spacing built-in. sadly, the practice of double-spacing is still largely prevalent, despite having been unnecessary since the advent of the macintosh computer in 1984.
whoever was responsible for typesetting this book is in neither one camp nor the other, for throughout the pages, random double and even triple spacing at the end of sentences is disappointingly and insistently present. though this does not affect the narrative as such, it is ruddy annoying, and should really have been caught at the proofing stage.
but aside from the occasional convolutedly unresolved and incomprehensible phrase, if you're at one with getting down and dirty on a bicycle, it's important to know from whence your fun and frolics came. it really is an excellent and addictive book.
rule no. 28 - no rider is to cover any part of the course without his machine.
posted friday 22 july 2011