'velo' by paul fournel illustrated by jo burt. rouleur publishing. hardback 160pp illus. £21

vel by paul fournel

"And then, one morning, I no longer heard the noise of running behind me, no more rhythmic breathing on my back.The miracle had taken place. I was riding. I never wanted to put my feet back down for fear that the miracle wouldn't happen again. I was jubilant."

in my daily travails i have the good fortune to mess about with pre-press preparations, eventually leading to colour printing in one form or another. it is not a particularly onerous task, it's one i enjoy and for which i trained and one which brings me into contact with people and organisations with which i would not normally find myself associated. aside from that, for the time being, i am the only individual on the island suitably equipped to carry out these ministrations on others' behalf.

the most recent venture has been that of designing and compiling the brochure for next month's islay book festival in which one of the visiting authors (geoff dupuy-holder) will present a talk on 101 things to do with a stone circle. on the basis of the title alone, i am inclined to buy my ticket and eagerly await the content of his discourse. the title itself is not, however, an original concept, as our senses are continually assailed by articles and books that offer to inform us as to subjects such as 101 derailleurs to fit before you die, or 100 uses for a punctured inner-tube. in keeping with this theme that i have rather arbitrarily extracted from innocuous beginnings, i have had thoughts of 101 cycling books that ought to fill your bookshelves.

the first is the rider by tim krabbe, an essential read for the aspiring roadie. the second, but not necessarily adhering to any hierarchical listing, is the book currently under consideration: velo by paul fournel, illustrated by the inestimable jo burt (yes, that jo burt). any further additions to that list would, by definition, require to be subjected to differing criteria, for though i intend no disrespect to any of the authors whose books i have reviewed over the years, the above two examples are as much about language and emotion as they are about cycling.

paul fournel was, until a couple of years ago, the french cultural attache in london before returning to paris where to concentrate on his writing. he is renowned in cycling circles not only for his contributions to each issue of rouleur (publishers of this particular volume), but for his 2001 publication 'need for the bike'. this beautifully illustrated contemporary edition contains all of the original need for the bike essays, augmented by several subsequent articles originally published in rouleur magazine. his writings in the magazine have almost always been accompanied by the dextrous pencil work of jo burt, several of which have been included here. to all intents a win/win situation in my opinion.

vel by paul fournel

though the work of author and illustrator appear on the same pages, neither have actually met, though as jo burt says "it's not unusual for the illustrator to never meet the author."

fournel is a member of the literary group oulipo, a movement born in 1960 that attempts to incorporate mathematics and the sciences in developing new structures for literary works. ostensibly a response to surrealism. though the short essays included in 'velo' display little direct evidence of oulipo doctrines, it would be hard to deny that this voluntary conditioning has influenced his style of writing. the result is quite beautiful, and a beauty that is continued by jo burt's sympathetic artistry.

"To be seated in the saddle, to not carry the weight of your own body, gives bike riding something of swimming, something of flying. The saddle carries you, like water, like air. The saddle, but also the frame, and the tyres, and the compressed air in the tyres all give you wings."

on a purely personal level, i truly wish i could write this well. while i feel it my duty to employ as many obscure words of several syllables or more in the course of my daily scribblings, it would be hard to deny that this often results in exceedingly lengthy monologues which may occasionally be of an appropriate level of entertainment. but they could never attract the adjective concise.

fournel on the other hand is a true wordsmith, one that has language at his every beck and call and with an ability to encapsulate in a minimum of words, the very emotions and experiences that result from our need for the bike. unless you are possessed of a particularly ignorant disposition, the sunday morning, saturday afternoon or wednesday evening bike ride is about more than just pedalling and changing gear. though we are all thankfully different, there is a whole existential world out there that is often brought to life through the simple process of riding a bike. fournel is not a stranger to this. oh that we could recall each and every ride experience with such perspicacity and flavour.

given the wide range of the latter that fournel has ascribed to the bicycle and the act of riding, was it an easy task for jo burt to choose which essay or aspect to illustrate for the book?

"Not really. It was a complicated procedure, but more to do with getting the design and feel of the book right than to do with any trouble interpreting the stories pictorially. Some of the stories already had images attached having been printed in Rouleur over the last few years. Those were already in place; but where these stories sat in the book meant some of the illustrations where bunched together, leaving large sections of the text image free.
"So those areas had to have images slotted in, so that the book 'flowed' nicely. There was a lot of conversation and discussion with the book's designer, Jonathan Bacon, to make sure it worked as a whole with regard to images. Some of the illustration choices were mine from an artistic viewpoint and some were Jonathan's from a layout perspective. We met in the middle to give the book a pleasing image/text mix, be that where we put illustrations, whether they were full page, drop-ins, or somewhere in-between. It was a lot of work for both of us, and significantly more than included in the original brief, but we thought it was worth the effort. We wanted to make the book look as pretty as we could."

vel by paul fournel

fournel has also the ability to recall kernels of his cycling past without the cloying nostalgia that would undermine any poignancy of thought. "That summer I had punctured 23 times. Thanks to inflating and reinflating my tyres on the slopes and in the ditches beside the roads, my arms were bigger than my thighs." these reminiscences avoid the inevitable incidentals that feature in coffee shop banter, relieving us of any imposed tedium while promoting the quest for more. many will identify with the observations expressed, particularly when seeing them made manifest rather than voiced as more than a few incoherent grunts. no doubt this is as much a result of fournel's inherent editing process as it is his skill with prose.

jo burt's illustrations follow a parallel course, displaying an uncanny grasp of the narrative's economy of words, and resulting in a similar economy of line and shade. were burt's visuals subject to the same editing process as would apply to the author? in other words, were there any drawings left on the cutting room floor? "No, none at all. The design process eliminated that, and due to a tight deadline there wasn't any time for wastage."

as to that fluidity of expression in burt's unique style, he exhibits a consummate facility with a pencil. does he suffer for his art, or is it all as effortless as it looks? "As someone probably once said, if it looks easy it probably isn't.
"Nevertheless some of the illustrations were easy, the image popping into my head while reading the story and the drawing spilling out the end of the HB quickly and effortlessly. Others took a bit more thinking time to make it to paper and some just took a lot of plain old pencilwork and rubbings out to get down. So overall a lot of hard graft, not working-down-the-mines sweaty dangerous work, but pretty labour intensive nonetheless."

and though an completely unfair question, does he have a favourite illustration from the book? "Hmmm, yeah, not a fair question. As a hyper-critical reviewer of my own work, I will always find fault with what I've done, and leafing through the book I could point out what I see as errors, or something I'd do differently, better, in each illustration. But then in each picture - even ones I'm generally unhappy with - I can see something that I like, even if it is the tiniest detail.
"But I like San Francisco because it's a funky image, I like Machine because it's something we can all relate to I think. Landscapes and Blue Jersey are lovely diptychs that I'm a sucker for and I like the cover, because covers are something I don't get to do often. And I like some of the smaller drawings because they're so frail and precious and yet incidental and almost throwaway. I also think some aren't very good."

perhaps, however, one of the overlooked aspects of fournel's writings is that to which i have already paid tribute; his brevity. few of these essays are longer than two pages, allowing the reader to dip in and out according to mood, time and taste. as evidenced by many a book or magazine article concerning the most efficient manner of conducting oneself on the bike, hydration, eating and a warm-up are prescribed prior to clambering into the saddle. similarly that of the apres ride when there are complementary ministrations to be dealt with. i would humbly suggest that each intended ride be preceded by a chapter from fournel's velo and ended in the same manner. and while riding, do your utmost to imitate the mannerisms of jo burt's pelotonese.

an absolutely essential book. in fact, buy two and leave one for communal perusal in the coffee shop.

pound;120. capped at 150, these are signed by paul fournel and come with a signed art print by jo burt, packaged in a limited edition foil-pressed box. this can be pre-ordered here. brownie points are also due to jonathan bacon for design and claire read who did sterling work on checking the original french against the english translation.

thursday 30th august 2012


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