Somewhat irritatingly this post, which I actually wrote a week before publication, was truncated when I edited it using the wordpress app on my phone. I’ve contacted the app developers about this and am awaiting a response. In view of the late hour, the fact that I have spent the entire week in Dartford and have to go back next week and my wife making unreasonable demands on me immediately upon my return (“Come to bed, it’s late!” – Who does she think she is? I’ve a blog to maintain, clearly.) I’m going to rescue the content by telling my witty story five paragraphs from now instead of making you read Jerome K Jerome’s masterpiece first. The Jerome K Jerome chapter was cut off and my anecdote disappeared with it… grr…
It is so difficult to say anything new and useful on the subject of biycle repair that today I have decided to repeat our sport’s ancient wisdoms. Whereas Richard Ballantine’s Bicycle Book (especially the early editions from the 1970s) is generally considered to be the best manual of all time, instructing the reader on both how to ride and repair, Jerome K Jerome’s wisdom is often overlooked. Many will be familiar with his first classic book, Three Men On A Boat. Not so many people are familiar with his second classic, Three Men On A Bummel. It features the same three companions but this time they undertake a cycling tour in Germany.
Three Men On A Bummel is a comic masterpiece because it contains various episodes of superbly delicate humour and realism. It does not hang together quite as well as a whole book. The confusion begins with the title. “Bummel” is not a word commonly found in English dictionaries. The book’s narrator explains, when asked about about its meaning:
“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it’s over.”
The book is set when recreational cycling had first become a craze. I’m not going to spoil the whole thing by repeating it here. You can read it for yourself, for free. My favourite part I will share with you though. It features the narrator and Harris. The moral of the tale that follows is to never let anyone else outside of a repair shop fix your bicycle. Always do it yourself!
I forgot this moral lesson once and allowed a fellow living in Hove to fix my bicycle. I didn’t know him very well. Really he was the boyfriend of a friend of mine. She was really cool. He was, erm, not so cool. In fact, he’d just got out of prison. He’d been at a party apparently and the police had charged in looking for drugs. You can imagine the scene. A party in Brighton in the early 1980s. Lots of goths taking drugs and being generally hopeless. One glaswegian not being hopeless but feeling absurdly noble. He volunteered to take the rap so he told me. He told the police in front of the astonished pale faces that all the drugs were his. He went to prison for quite a while. When he got out, his girfriend had waited for him but all the goths had left for college degrees in other towns. Imagine his surprise. He was, much like the tale told below, a fellow who was hard to refuse. He offered to fix my bicycle brakes. They were fine, I insisted. Then he gave me that look. The look of a man who has survived prison intact. Okay, I admitted, the back brakes were non existent. It literally didn’t have any. He kindly fixed my brakes for me. I mumbled some words of gratitude and cycled away back towards Brighton. As I was going down New England Hill I tried the new fangled back brakes but they went suddenly limp. I tried the trusty old front brakes too. They also failed. Rapidly gaining speed, I did not immediately realise that he had not troubled himself with tightening up the brake nuts. At the time I was more concerned with my own nuts. I put my foot down but the crappy shoes just wore right through. I careered through a line of traffic coming up the hill and turning right for the Old Shoreham Road. The man whose bonnet I glanced off didn’t look too happy. I couldn’t risk the traffic at the bottom of the road being in full sway along the London Road or even, were the lights to be in my favour me being able to make the corner. I jammed my left foot against the kerb which surrounds the pillars in the middle of the tunnel under the railway bridge and came tumbling off. Not a pleasant experience. Cuts and bruises you do not need. If you can’t learn from my lesson, learn from Jerome K Jerome….
* * *
“Is the thing all right?” he asked.
“The tandem,” I replied, “is well.”
He said: “Have you overhauled it?”
I said: “I have not, nor is anyone else going to overhaul it. The thing is now in working order, and it is going to remain in working order till we start.”
I have had experience of this “overhauling.” There was a man at Folkestone; I used to meet him on the Lees. He proposed one evening we should go for a long bicycle ride together on the following day, and I agreed. I got up early, for me; I made an effort, and was pleased with myself. He came half an hour late: I was waiting for him in the garden. It was a lovely day. He said:—
“That’s a good-looking machine of yours. How does it run?”
“Oh, like most of them!” I answered; “easily enough in the morning; goes a little stiffly after lunch.”
He caught hold of it by the front wheel and the fork and shook it violently.
I said: “Don’t do that; you’ll hurt it.”
I did not see why he should shake it; it had not done anything to him. Besides, if it wanted shaking, I was the proper person to shake it. I felt much as I should had he started whacking my dog.
He said: “This front wheel wobbles.”
I said: “It doesn’t if you don’t wobble it.” It didn’t wobble, as a matter of fact—nothing worth calling a wobble.
He said: “This is dangerous; have you got a screw-hammer?”
I ought to have been firm, but I thought that perhaps he really did know something about the business. I went to the tool shed to see what I could find. When I came back he was sitting on the ground with the front wheel between his legs. He was playing with it, twiddling it round between his fingers; the remnant of the machine was lying on the gravel path beside him.
He said: “Something has happened to this front wheel of yours.”
“It looks like it, doesn’t it?” I answered. But he was the sort of man that never understands satire.
He said: “It looks to me as if the bearings were all wrong.”
I said: “Don’t you trouble about it any more; you will make yourself tired. Let us put it back and get off.”
He said: “We may as well see what is the matter with it, now it is out.” He talked as though it had dropped out by accident.
Before I could stop him he had unscrewed something somewhere, and out rolled all over the path some dozen or so little balls.
“Catch ’em!” he shouted; “catch ’em! We mustn’t lose any of them.” He was quite excited about them.
We grovelled round for half an hour, and found sixteen. He said he hoped we had got them all, because, if not, it would make a serious difference to the machine. He said there was nothing you should be more careful about in taking a bicycle to pieces than seeing you did not lose any of the balls. He explained that you ought to count them as you took them out, and see that exactly the same number went back in each place. I promised, if ever I took a bicycle to pieces I would remember his advice.
I put the balls for safety in my hat, and I put my hat upon the doorstep. It was not a sensible thing to do, I admit. As a matter of fact, it was a silly thing to do. I am not as a rule addle-headed; his influence must have affected me.
He then said that while he was about it he would see to the chain for me, and at once began taking off the gear-case. I did try to persuade him from that. I told him what an experienced friend of mine once said to me solemnly:—
“If anything goes wrong with your gear-case, sell the machine and buy a new one; it comes cheaper.”
He said: “People talk like that who understand nothing about machines. Nothing is easier than taking off a gear-case.”
I had to confess he was right. In less than five minutes he had the gear-case in two pieces, lying on the path, and was grovelling for screws. He said it was always a mystery to him the way screws disappeared.
We were still looking for the screws when Ethelbertha came out. She seemed surprised to find us there; she said she thought we had started hours ago.
He said: “We shan’t be long now. I’m just helping your husband to overhaul this machine of his. It’s a good machine; but they all want going over occasionally.”
Ethelbertha said: “If you want to wash yourselves when you have done you might go into the back kitchen, if you don’t mind; the girls have just finished the bedrooms.”
She told me that if she met Kate they would probably go for a sail; but that in any case she would be back to lunch. I would have given a sovereign to be going with her. I was getting heartily sick of standing about watching this fool breaking up my bicycle.
Common sense continued to whisper to me: “Stop him, before he does any more mischief. You have a right to protect your own property from the ravages of a lunatic. Take him by the scruff of the neck, and kick him out of the gate!”
But I am weak when it comes to hurting other people’s feelings, and I let him muddle on.
He gave up looking for the rest of the screws. He said screws had a knack of turning up when you least expected them; and that now he would see to the chain. He tightened it till it would not move; next he loosened it until it was twice as loose as it was before. Then he said we had better think about getting the front wheel back into its place again.
I held the fork open, and he worried with the wheel. At the end of ten minutes I suggested he should hold the forks, and that I should handle the wheel; and we changed places. At the end of his first minute he dropped the machine, and took a short walk round the croquet lawn, with his hands pressed together between his thighs. He explained as he walked that the thing to be careful about was to avoid getting your fingers pinched between the forks and the spokes of the wheel. I replied I was convinced, from my own experience, that there was much truth in what he said. He wrapped himself up in a couple of dusters, and we commenced again. At length we did get the thing into position; and the moment it was in position he burst out laughing.
I said: “What’s the joke?”
He said: “Well, I am an ass!”
It was the first thing he had said that made me respect him. I asked him what had led him to the discovery.
He said: “We’ve forgotten the balls!”
I looked for my hat; it was lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the path, and Ethelbertha’s favourite hound was swallowing the balls as fast as he could pick them up.
“He will kill himself,” said Ebbson—I have never met him since that day, thank the Lord; but I think his name was Ebbson—“they are solid steel.”
I said: “I am not troubling about the dog. He has had a bootlace and a packet of needles already this week. Nature’s the best guide; puppies seem to require this kind of stimulant. What I am thinking about is my bicycle.”
He was of a cheerful disposition. He said: “Well, we must put back all we can find, and trust to Providence.”
We found eleven. We fixed six on one side and five on the other, and half an hour later the wheel was in its place again. It need hardly be added that it really did wobble now; a child might have noticed it. Ebbson said it would do for the present. He appeared to be getting a bit tired himself. If I had let him, he would, I believe, at this point have gone home. I was determined now, however, that he should stop and finish; I had abandoned all thoughts of a ride. My pride in the machine he had killed. My only interest lay now in seeing him scratch and bump and pinch himself. I revived his drooping spirits with a glass of beer and some judicious praise. I said:
“Watching you do this is of real use to me. It is not only your skill and dexterity that fascinates me, it is your cheery confidence in yourself, your inexplicable hopefulness, that does me good.”
Thus encouraged, he set to work to refix the gear-case. He stood the bicycle against the house, and worked from the off side. Then he stood it against a tree, and worked from the near side. Then I held it for him, while he lay on the ground with his head between the wheels, and worked at it from below, and dropped oil upon himself. Then he took it away from me, and doubled himself across it like a pack-saddle, till he lost his balance and slid over on to his head. Three times he said:
“Thank Heaven, that’s right at last!”
And twice he said:
“No, I’m damned if it is after all!”
What he said the third time I try to forget.
Then he lost his temper and tried bullying the thing. The bicycle, I was glad to see, showed spirit; and the subsequent proceedings degenerated into little else than a rough-and-tumble fight between him and the machine. One moment the bicycle would be on the gravel path, and he on top of it; the next, the position would be reversed—he on the gravel path, the bicycle on him. Now he would be standing flushed with victory, the bicycle firmly fixed between his legs. But his triumph would be short-lived. By a sudden, quick movement it would free itself, and, turning upon him, hit him sharply over the head with one of its handles.
At a quarter to one, dirty and dishevelled, cut and breeding, he said: “I think that will do;” and rose and wiped his brow.
The bicycle looked as if it also had had enough of it. Which had received most punishment it would have been difficult to say. I took him into the back kitchen, where, so far as was possible without soda and proper tools, he cleaned himself, and sent him home.
The bicycle I put into a cab and took round to the nearest repairing shop. The foreman of the works came up and looked at it.
“What do you want me to do with that?” said he.
“I want you,” I said, “so far as is possible, to restore it.”
“It’s a bit far gone,” said he; “but I’ll do my best.”
He did his best, which came to two pounds ten. But it was never the same machine again; and at the end of the season I left it in an agent’s hands to sell. I wished to deceive nobody; I instructed the man to advertise it as a last year’s machine. The agent advised me not to mention any date. He said:
“In this business it isn’t a question of what is true and what isn’t; it’s a question of what you can get people to believe. Now, between you and me, it don’t look like a last year’s machine; so far as looks are concerned, it might be a ten-year old. We’ll say nothing about date; we’ll just get what we can.”
I left the matter to him, and he got me five pounds, which he said was more than he had expected.
There are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can “overhaul” it, or you can ride it. On the whole, I am not sure that a man who takes his pleasure overhauling does not have the best of the bargain. He is independent of the weather and the wind; the state of the roads troubles him not. Give him a screw-hammer, a bundle of rags, an oil-can, and something to sit down upon, and he is happy for the day. He has to put up with certain disadvantages, of course; there is no joy without alloy. He himself always looks like a tinker, and his machine always suggests the idea that, having stolen it, he has tried to disguise it; but as he rarely gets beyond the first milestone with it, this, perhaps, does not much matter. The mistake some people make is in thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine. This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain. You must make up your mind whether you are going to be an “overhauler” or a rider. Personally, I prefer to ride, therefore I take care to have near me nothing that can tempt me to overhaul. When anything happens to my machine I wheel it to the nearest repairing shop. If I am too far from the town or village to walk, I sit by the roadside and wait till a cart comes along. My chief danger, I always find, is from the wandering overhauler. The sight of a broken-down machine is to the overhauler as a wayside corpse to a crow; he swoops down upon it with a friendly yell of triumph. At first I used to try politeness. I would say:
“It is nothing; don’t you trouble. You ride on, and enjoy yourself, I beg it of you as a favour; please go away.”
Experience has taught me, however, that courtesy is of no use in such an extremity. Now I say:
“You go away and leave the thing alone, or I will knock your silly head off.”
And if you look determined, and have a good stout cudgel in your hand, you can generally drive him off.