bicycle diaries by david byrne. faber & faber. hardcover, 303pp illus. £14.99

bicycle diaries

"though i have tended to paint a bleak picture, not every city in the usa is going to hell in a handbasket because of dying industry, stupid planning decisions, or racially motivated white flight. it doesn't have to be that way. san francisco, portland, much of seattle, much of chicago, minneapolis, savannah and many more are vibrant and full of life. these are places where things are turning around, where the quality of life has completely returned, or where it was never allowed to be destroyed. strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren't scoffed at anymore."

my week in portland was helped immeasurably by the loan of a cielo bicycle from chris king components; with so many of the people i wished to visit being involved in the bicycle business and spread across various parts of the city, cycling was by far the most practical method of hopping from place to place. this made even more sense when my tour guide (thank you mr distefano) was also aboard a bicycle. portland's like that.

but being the guardian of a brand new bicycle in a city, rather than in the more tranquil surroundings of my home, meant more attention had to be paid to retaining that temporary ownership; in other words, not getting it stolen.the cielo did not arrive with a lock or security guard, so while it was safe enough in slate's basement during my time staying there, i was none too keen on leaving it all on its own in the basement car park of the hotel i moved into for three nights. thankfully, portland has a more enlightened attitude to bicycles than many of the uk or european cities i can think of - they batted not one eyelid when i rolled the bike into the elevator and stowed it under lock and key (well, plastic security card) in the room.

and a cielo does not fold.

david byrne is a scot by birth, having his origins in dumbarton, near glasgow. in 1954, his parents moved the family to hamilton, ontario in canada and then on to arbutus, maryland usa. byrne was one of the founding members and idiosyncratic front-man for the new-wave band talking heads who played their first gig in 1975. in the time since talking heads went the way of many bands of that era, byrne has collaborated with brian eno amongst others, as well as forming the record label luaka bop and involving himself, in a similar way to peter gabriel, in world music and his own musical and visual artistic output.

while a lack of perspective, musicianship and possibly even intellect could reasonably have been levelled at many of those involved in new wave, these are not of valid contention when considering david byrne. he currently lives in new york, and has travelled around that city by bicycle since the late seventies/early eighties. since he finds this a practical way to get about, he has transposed the activity to the many countries visited during the itinerant life of a contemprorary musician and artist. in most cases this takes the form of a folding bicycle, but not always of the dahon/brompton variety, finding the wheels sometimes a little on the small side for such journeys.

bicycle diaries

"there are more new yorkers riding bikes than ever. and not just messengers. significantly, a lot of young hip folks don't seem to regard cycling as totally uncool anymore, which was definitely the case when i began to ride around in the late seventies and early eighties. i sense that we might be approaching a tipping point, to invoke that now cliched term. new yorkers are at the stage where they might, given the chance and the opportunity, consider a bicycle as a valid means of transportation - if not for themselves, then at least they will tolerate it as a reasonable means of transport for other new yorkers."

throughout these many years of world travelling, david byrne has kept a diary, or several. diaries that not so much employ the meeting at 11:00 or don't forget to put the bins out method of recording daily activities that need to be remembered, but more a journal detailing locations and people encountered and digressions and thoughts thereof. the chapters deal with a variety of cities: berlin, istanbul, buenos aires, manila, sydney, london, san francisco and home in new york. there is a frail yet concise attempt at the start of each to acquaint us with just what sort of cycling the layout of each brings to the eager traveller with bicycle, but generally that is the only involvement the bicycle plays in the book. so readers eagerly wishing to find out whether the former talking heads frontman prefers campagnolo or shimano and whether he wears rapha or assos will be sorely disappointed. these pages are more concerned with byrne's philosophies and observations as he travels, though perhaps informed in part by his method of transport.

the bicycle is mute, yet says everything you need to know.

"i'm not saying cycling is a matter of survival - though it might be part of how we survive in the future - but here in buenos aires it seems so much a common sense way of getting around that cultural abhorrence is the only explanation i can come up with as to why there are no other cyclists on the streets. my cycling is considered so unusual here that it is newsworthy - it is written up in the local papers."

it is this intellectuality, albeit of a certain rarefied atmosphere that makes this book the gem that it is. on a purely superficial level, it is a pleasing thought to identify with one who has such affinity with the bicycle as modern transport, yet doesn't once mention mark cavendish or sram red. this is food for the brain. there are some very persuasive dialectics within these chapters that happily give the reader a holiday from the more restricted thought processes of modern cycling journalism. if i am giving the impression that this is an intellectual massage for readers wishing to indulge in the pretentious, maybe that is true, but very much on the part of the reader, never from david byrne. he has a real sense of his own place in the world at large, never indulging in self-aggrandisement, and never resorting to patronising either the reader or those he meets in the cities.

byrne has also refrained from becoming an insufferable bicycle advocate, despite having ridden long enough to justify so-doing, and observing its undoubted utility and practicality in conurbations throughout the world. it is only when we come to the chapter on his home city of new york, that he starts to deal with such items as bicycle lanes, bicycle parking and his own involvement in the forty two mile five boro bike tour which, quite frankly, comes as a bit of a surprise. until this point cycling for byrne has not been a leisure activity but one confined to transportational requirement. he then relates his year of attempting to stage a public forum on the bicycle-as-transport, which took place in new york's town hall in october of 2007. given byrne's background, this was not three people behind a table on stage alternating their particular brand of proselytizing: it was a multi-media event with film, music, discussion, bicycle parking and a level amount of advocacy.

david byrne

"london sprawls for an old city. most european capitals are pretty compact, but london, being an amalgamation of former villages, has many centers, and activities can take place miles apart from one another. as a result there can be some long and strenuous pedals. these don't necessarily result in making a trip longer than i twould be on the tube, but i sometimes arrive a little shiny."

bicycle diaries achieves as much as alluded to this organised event. in a very subtle way, i am drawn into byrne's seemingly bohemian existence, and it comes as somewhat of a shock to reach the last pages; back to my reality. the book is illustrated throughout with photographs by david byrne from his travels as well as many images culled from the locales. eccentricity pervades both collections, both in subject and photographers' eye. the end of the book features appendices recounting the author's notes on the various types of folding bicycle available, on appropriate clothing for bicycle travel, security tips (how not to have your bicycle stolen), and the shortest section on maintenance i have ever come across in a non-fiction book with bicycle in the title. there are also a few pages of drawings made by byrne for bicycle racks in the new york area.

i know not whether david byrne would take kindly to the epithet eccentric, but seen in the context of cycle publications, this would seem quite appropriate. with the book's design also by the author, at the foot of each right hand page is a tiny drawing of a bicycle which moves further to the right as each page is turned, before disappearing off the edge. a few pages later, it appears again going in the opposite direction. a giant flick-book. see the very, very short movie below.

an absolutely superb book which everyone should own or read. it won't make you any faster than you already are, and won't solve the armstrong/contador conflagration anytime soon.

the same as it ever was.


posted on sunday 23 august 2009

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