life cycle: a bike ride round scotland and back to childhood. gary sutherland. birlinn publishing 214pp illus. £9.99

life cycle

the poor unfortunate gentleman who heads up one of islay's local quangos (am i still allowed to say that?), pops by the office from time to time to pass on little snippets of information to the editor. since his directive has much to do with renewable energy, yet seems mostly unconcerned with the contribution made to global warming by motorised transport, i have a most annoying habit of goading him about not riding a bike.

these jibes are patently unfair, for he is anything but overweight and generally seems quite fit, but my taking a pop at him has more to do with the organisation he represents than with anything personal. the fact that he drives a land rover something-or-other really ought to be of no nevermind considering where he lives, but i more often than not conveniently ignore that fact. still, it's all harmless fun.

isn't it?

perhaps the irritation as i see it is the trotting out of an excuse that has been heard all so often, one that seeks to ally the persecuted with their interlocutors. "i used to cycle a lot when i was younger." i do not doubt that this was truthfully the case, but since i am now past my mid-fifties and still cycling more than ever; what's their excuse?

it is an uncomfortable truth, based on real-life evidence, that folks who do not cycle, when caught in the crossfire of a conversation that has patently undermined their inexplicable attachment to the motor car, will put far more effort into arriving at a series of reasons as to why the bicycle is simply not for them due to a wide variance in personal circumstances. most of them would never hold up in a court of law, and don't they just know it, but while approving of cycling as a potent means of transport, it's just not practical for them personally.

don't tell me you haven't experienced the same.

however, not everyone is so keen on squeezing themselves away from a future that involves the bicycle. take the sutherland brothers for example (not, since you ask, the guys who used to have a band with quiver). gary and his younger brother stewart, caught up in heady recollections of their occasionally mis-spent youth aboard a grifter xl and a tuff burner (both bicycles are 1980s variations on the archetypal american influenced bmx) decide to go riding again.

the brothers were brought up in hopeman, a small east-coast scottish town north-west of aberdeen on the road to forres. now both a lot older than the days when both the grifter and tuff burner were new and shiny, thoughts have shifted to longer journeys that might be undertaken on two wheels. "The biggest thing we shared besides our bedroom and the love of our parents was our love of bicycles, but where had that gone in the intervening years?" that may well be the very question a number of folks ask themselves occasionally, but quickly put it to the back of their minds before looking for the car keys.

quite possibly even the gentleman whose presence introduced this review.

gary may have been the progenitor of their forthcoming trip, but brother stewart appears to have been entirely complicit and quite likely, the better and fitter cyclist. at least he seems not to have offered much if anything in the way of resistance. "We'd set off from the back gate of our old house on Dunbar Street and pedal to Duffus, but we wouldn't stop there. No, we'd carry on to Elgin, and that wouldn't be the end of it either. We'd go right round the country and end up back where we started, at the back gate of our old house on Dunbar Street."

so far, so mundane. there must be a substantial number of folks who have undertaken to ride their bikes round scotland in the space of a couple of weeks, some of whom have also recorded the trip either in book format or on blogs. waterstone's bookshelves must be groaning under the weight of publications detailing each and every pedal stroke of personal cycle trips around several parts of the uk. so what makes the sutherland brothers' undertaking worthy not only of publishing, but subsequent reading?

on the face of it, nothing at all, but might i suggest that to look at life cycle in this manner would be to miss the point. for starters, gary sutherland's writing is very approachable; easy to read, in chapters of well-judged length and embodied with a particularly amenable self-deprecating humour. the fact that the writer has not ridden a bike for many a long year and certainly not over the 1,000 mile distance they plan to cover in two weeks, only adds to the incongruity of the project.

generally speaking, their route takes the brothers south east to aberdeen, then follows the scottish coast as far south as edinburgh before they turned right in the direction of glasgow. had it been me, i'd have been inclined to hug the west coast up past the southern hebrides to ullapool, but for reasons that are either not explained, or i wasn't paying attention, they headed diagonally north-east to inverness, then west again to ullapool. their departure from the town at the end of loch broom took them north to durness before turning south-east and back home to hopeman via lairg, inverness (again) and forres.

had they undertaken all this on those childhood faux bmx bicycles, the whole thing would have surely been a bit on the twee side. but at least both had the sensibility to purchase a couple of grown-up bicycles and festoon them with appropriate bicycle luggage. these were nicknamed according to their colours: the white knight and green lantern.

it's a slightly eccentric route, but to be honest, the path taken is not the crux of the narrative. well, ok, it sort of is, but i get the distinct impression that gary sutherland could have written about repeatedly pedalling up and down hopeman main street and every sentence would have been entertainment encapsulated. he has a truly laconic style of which one never tires. it's a remarkably easy read with flavours of michael hutchinson and bill bryson threaded within sutherland's own manner of dissertation.

"We then saw our second bird of prey, swirling in the sky and getting ready to swoop.
"What is it?' asked Stewart.
"A bird of prey,' I said.
"Aye, but what kind?'
"Dunno, an eagle.'
"Doesn't look like an eagle.'
"Something else then."

but aside from the travelogue, the narrative, the humour and the fact that gary sutherland realises that the bicycle might play a greater part in his life from this point onwards, it is a great feel good story. though some of us would hate to return to our childhoods, gary and stewart literally did, if only for those last few miles back to the back gate of their former home in dunbar street, hopeman.

...and then I looked over to the car. Strapped to the back of it were a Grifter XL and a Tuff Burner.

a truly lovely book.

thursday 17th october 2013