Thursday 22 January 2009

The Great Bicycle Expedition, William C Anderson (1973)

Crown 0 517 505975 Quarto 208pp $5.95

The light-hearted account of a journey made by a new-to-cycling couple in their fifties and their young adult children from Copenhagen to Calais in the summer of 1972

In the early 1970s cycling had a renaissance in the United States. The ‘oil crisis’ of October 1973 is frequently cited as the motive force for this rediscovery of self propulsion by Americans – but Anderson’s testimony suggests that there was something in the air long before OPEC intervened.

He was a career airforce officer turned professional writer who enjoyed success with a series of amusing, easy-to-read accounts of his family’s adventures. By 1972 they had traversed their own continent with a caravan, built for themselves and moved into an eco-home and explored the Mississippi on a houseboat – each of which had been turned into a book.

As Anderson tells it, he was take aback by his wife’s agreeable reaction to his proposal for fresh adventure. More surprising still – but rather less explained – was the acquiescence of his college-age son and daughter. None had ridden a bike since childhood, the author explains – a good four decades distant, in the case of half of the party. In the Danish capital they buy new touring bicycles, and then hit a predictably steep learning curve.

It is all told in an enjoyable enough way. Dialogue drives much of his account, and at times his vignettes read like a script for the Cunningham family of Happy Days fame to proceed a-wheel from Scandinavia.

Here is Anderson trying to get his leg over for the other kind of ride.

“You are in great shape,” I said to her (variously, the wife, the distaff, Big Red or my soulmate), plucking a dandelion and handing it to her. “If you were in any better shape I couldn’t stand it. In fact,” I waggled my brows at her. “What say you and take your great shape over to yon haystack? Play a little kissy-face?”

She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and gave me the dandelion back. “Honestly! If you don’t think of the darnedest thing at the darnedest times.”

“Correction. I think about it all the time. I just mention it at the darnedest times.”

“Just address yourself to your map, hotlips.”

The author’s main endeavour is in squeezing humour from their situation – at which he is good, even if it is very warm and gentle, by modern standards. There is not much by way of observational reporting, although where there is, he catches the tone well. His write-up of the in-your-face sale of hard-core pornography that was so noticeable in Sweden in the mid-1970s, for example, is consistent with my memories of the country a few years later. And the Swedish maitre d’ who parries Anderson’s surprise that his country had an army with the retort “We have a very neutral army” also rang true.

Anderson also records the names and prices of hotels and restaurants, which are of historical rather than practical interest at this remove. He does, however, provide some insight into how poor Americans felt abroad in the years after their currency came off the gold standard in 1971. Anderson carries “Europe On $5 A Day” with him, but concludes by saying that even with cheap hotels and modest restaurants, the per-person cost of trip has been more like double that. He doesn’t mind however, and records that it was ‘one of the most memorable experiences of my life’.

In fact, it is a recommendation of the inexpensive delights of cycle touring in times of economic turbulence, that has unexpected resonance today. Perhaps we should be reflecting anew on the role that the bicycle might play in transporting us from today’s credit crisis.

PS January 09

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This book is a delightful, rollicking, offbeat adventure of a family's bicycling journey, told by an unconventional, witty, irreverent author with an uncommon zest for life. There are some quotable lines and some laugh-out-loud passages that you'll find endearing enough to read more of Anderson's tales. I highly recommend this book!