Of Wiggling (1927), Section one of three
ONE of John Ruskin's ready anathemas he pronounced upon "all who
ride or wriggle on wheels." That inclusive malediction was directed
against the cyclists of his day, in spite of its inclusiveness; and he
failed to see, who readily rode on the wheels of a phaeton, and less readily
on those of a railway train, that he condemned himself.
John Ruskin was a seer. A seer is one who sees a long way ahead of his
times. Also, he has good eyes in the back of his head and can see a long
way behind him, which is an even rarer gift. In "civilisation,"
myopia is epidemic always and everywhere. "We are forgetting-machines"
said one of Barbusse's squad; and most people do not look farther ahead
than the next pay-day. So the seer is richly endowed, and should always
be heard with respect, though I doubt if there is any magic in "second
But the seer is perhaps less able to see near objects plainly than people
of normal vision or even of short sight. He finds it difficult to adjust
his natural long-distance focus to those nearer things which, if you look
at them through a telescope, are not clearly or truly seen.
So, when the riders of high bicycles first flitted across John Ruskin's
field of sight, invading his Lakeland seclusion, he failed to adjust that
natural focus, and saw only a blurred and unwanted vision of still more
new machinery, another aid to hurry, another quest of speed for its own
sake; and he was quite wrong. The eyes of the seer played him a dirty
It would be about 1875 that the Brantwood recluse first saw the apparition
of men perched above five-foot wheels. He was then a heretic and rebel
against orthodox religion and economics, orthodox politics and morals,
orthodox art and science. He declared that idleness and slavery were alike
immoral, and he looked so far ahead of his times that he saw "the
full reconciliation of hostile interests and the blind internecine struggle
of this perverse world in the clearer light of the millennial morning."*
The glory of that vision often dazzled his eyes and obscured his view
of nearer things. In too hasty judgment, he forgot the momentous matter
of motives. He had seen too much machinery already for his peace of mind,
and saw the machine-borne cyclist only as a product of the long mills
and tall chimneys of the towns, or "the consuming white leprosy of
hotels and perfumers' shops."
Yet only ten years earlier he had shocked and angered the people of
Bradford by his address in their Town Hall when they had invited him to
go and pat them on the back.
There are sore places in Bradford still, left by the cautery of his
tongue when he told them that their ideals were based upon "a mill
not less than a quarter of a mile long, with one steam engine at each
end and two in the middle, and a chimney three hundred feet high."*
Now, where had those cyclists come from whom Ruskin saw, ten years later,
as they looked from the birches of Brantwood across the mere to the Old
Man of Coniston? It is more than likely that they came from Bradford*
itself! These men, learning the art of life, had found, like Ruskin, "that
all lovely things are also necessary-the wild flowers by the wayside,
as well as the tended corn; and the wild birds and creatures of the forest,
as well as the tended cattle."* He who worshipped the high places
of the earth failed to see himself in the new travellers, failed to recognise
a slightly different expression of the same basic and eternal human instinct,
of a desire and a worship no whit less sincere than his own, if less conscious
and cultivated. John Ruskin left Bradford and returned to Brantwood because
he preferred it. The cyclist did likewise for exactly the same reason.
They actually preferred Coniston Water to the Black Beck of Bradford.
Indeed, they may have sought Brantwood on purpose to see the Seer who
had told them the truth! Ruskin made the journey by railway, which he
disliked, and in a horsed carriage. The cyclists were wholly superior
to the Seer, for they did the journey themselves and by their own effort,
of which, if the Seer had not been star-gazing, he would have thundered
approval and benison.
There are those of us who believe in Ruskin's "millennial morning"
of social redemption. We do not see it as clearly, perhaps, or in such
a bright light, because we are not seers. But we believe in it even more
fiercely than he because we believe also that we can see the way to it,
a definite and scientific way; and we see this more clearly than he because
it is so much nearer. We also look forward to a day when poverty will
be regarded only as a case for the physician, and wealth only as a case
for the gaoler, when the former things are passed away, and all may have
right to the tree of life; and when the millennium to which Ruskin looked
afar is at last achieved through the sacrifice and suffering of men, the
bicycle will still be there.
Why, indeed, should there be no bicycles "when we have built Jerusalem
in England's green and pleasant land," and in all the other lands?
Ruskin believed that the good and proper way to travel was to walk; and
he was right-within limits. To those limits he was subject like the rest,
for he used the railway and the phaeton. Whenever we use any sort of mechanical
contrivance to do our walking for us, whenever we take to wheels, we merely
proclaim that we either have not the time to walk or the strength to carry
our own weight plus such other weight as we may be wanting to take with
us. He saw, and he saw rightly, that few of us have time to do anything
properly, society being what it is, and the whole of the time of the multitude
being spent in a horrid and ugly struggle-the few struggling to get more
than they need, the many struggling for the least that they need. If we
were condemned (or damned) to "develop" along our present lines,
which God forbid, it would merely mean that the more "civilised"
we became, the ruder, the more selfish, the more noisy and noisome, the
more utterly objectionable to our fellow-men we should be.
Ruskin believed, as some of us still believe as we believe nothing else,
that the foul chaos and inferno of society to-day is only a passing phase,
that The Day is sure to come when all will have time to do properly the
things they like to do-except those who will do nothing; and that they
will do in hospital or gaol. The way we travel will be symptomatic of
all our other activities, as it is now. Our motive in travel is really
of less importance than our way of travelling, for this affects so many
others besides ourselves. When we devise a simple mechanical contrivance
to ease the labour of walking, putting our bodies to their natural and
wholesome uses, earning our own passage, while at the same time we disturb
or alarm or discomfort no one-then, pace John Ruskin, we are actively
preparing for The Day when all will have leisure to go out and meet the
best men and women of the world, the best of the world's other beauty,
its mountains and fjords, sunsets and sunrise, its Apennines and its Cotswolds.
I believe that the bicycle has its honourable and
indispensable place in the ultimate redemption and happiness of mankind.
What, think you, was the motive of Baron von Drais when he patented the
hobby-horse in Paris early in the nineteenth century? Perhaps the lady
who was to be Mrs. Baron von Drais lived at Vincennes, and he at Suresnes,
and he desired to lengthen their tête-á-têtes by abbreviating
the journey-an excellent motive.
What were the motives of Kirkpatrick McMillan and Gavin Dalzell when
they improved the hobbyhorse into something like a bicycle? They were
Scots, and perhaps they found their visits to kirk or howff costing too
much in time and shoe-leather. High-class motives, again!
The first widespread popularity of cycling was reached through the perfection
of the high bicycle. Light, easy, graceful, and dangerous, the zenith
of its shining splendour dates between 1875 and 1880. It attracted in
shoals the "better-off" young men of the period, for in 1879
the biggest provincial cycling club in Britain was that of Cambridge University.
Motives ? Instinct, rather. Unconsciously they had been waiting for it
all their lives:-
Prophets and kings desired it long But died without the sight.
Then, as now, the athletic side of the new pastime was as much a lodestone
as the recreational, or "call of the road"; and great was the
popularity of successful racers on the "good old ordinary."
But they took those soaring saddles on tour to the Continent as well;
and in Yorkshire alone there were twenty-seven cycling clubs. While it
still reigned, that national coterie of comradeship the Cyclists' Touring
Club came into being-in 1878. The first machine which the fervent young
cyclist of to-day would call a bicycle was introduced in 1885, the Rover
Safety. Ruskin died five years later. In '88 solid tyres were relegated
to the "pram," and an Irishman put a buffer of compressed air
between the cyclist and the rocky road to Dublin.
Suddenly, cycling became a fashionable craze- in 1895, and the futile
furore lasted four or five years. Battersea and Hyde Parks were thronged
with leading Society ladies on bicycles, wobbling in long skirts and petticoats.
Their motives? Then, as always, to see and be seen, and to have their
photos in the Cycle World Illustrated, sixpence weekly.
The makers got £25 to £30 for their Modeles de Luxe, roared
for more capital and got it; and a sinister spawn of company promoters
floated wide. The Society papers informed us that the Countess of Warwick
had her bicycles enamelled to match her dresses; that Miss Lilian Russell's
machine had been plated in pure gold at a cost of £400; and that
General Stracey's bicycle had been "finished in the well-known red
and blue of the Guards."
Mayfair throbbed with excitement and envy to hear that Lady X. could
ride round Battersea Park "hands off." Going abroad for bits
of topical babble, the Cycle World Illustrated told us that a young Parisian
widow consoled herself in her bereavement by cycling in crape knickerbockers.
It was " the done thing" in the Boom to belong to the C.T.C.,
and the club's membership was over sixty thousand in 1899.
All this was mere froth, frills, and foolishness. It is the final and
unchallengeable proof of the bicycle's immortality that High Society's
patronage did not kill it for ever. The mania went up like the rocket
and came down like the stick. The pre-boom athletes and tourists remained,
but otherwise there was a reaction. Cycling was no longer "fashionable,"
and its votaries hitherto had been drawn mainly from the classes who hear
Fashion's dictates with respect. Besides, the tourists of 1880 were nearly
a quarter of a century older now, and even the "safety" bicycle
required a hop, skip and a jump for mounting and dismounting. Gears were
generally too high, and became a weariness of the flesh.
By 1900, also, the motor-cycle was available; and in 1905 motor-cars
were selling freely. Many were the cheerful idiots who saw in them the
doom of the bicycle. The bicycle makers themselves had their doubts, and
they diverted all their inventive research and designing skill to the
new power-machines. "The bicycle," said they, "has at most
settled down on standard and stereotyped lines. It cannot be improved.
But it shall now provide us with the staple of our revenue while we concentrate
on the motorcycle, which is likely to carry more profit." But having
vast machinery laid down for making bicycles as a result of the vanished
boom, they went in for mass production of the standardised article, and
one of the famous old Coventry firms in 1902 announced "One quality,
one price-twelve guineas."
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