Scarred for life

I don’t have many really clear memories from my early childhood, at least not that I am able to draw from the depths of my mind’s well at will. No doubt a skilled hypnotherapist or psychiatrist might be able to tap into them but that might not be such a good idea anyway. Something I do recall though, with painful clarity is a fancy dress event that I went to when I was about seven. I might have been six or even eight, but I don’t think the precise age has any bearing on the depth of mental scarring that resulted from the experience.

Scars are funny things. Physical ones can be devastating, causing lifelong mental anguish and destroying confidence but equally they can be the source of pride and bravado spawning many an embellished account of how they were acquired in a moment of youthful daring. Mental ones on the other hand are almost invariably damaging and in most cases we strive to limit that damage by burying the memory deep to protect ourselves from it. No matter how much I try to supress this one though, it comes back to haunt me from time to time and I sometimes wonder if it shaped me in some way in later life.

The fancy dress party wasn’t at a friend’s house it was in some kind of public institution with a hall and a stage but I can’t recall why it was held there or what the occasion was. In fact I don’t actually remember that much about it at all really. There must have been girls as well as boys there but I have no recollection at all about what the girls were wearing. They were probably all fairies or princesses I would guess. As far as I am aware radical feminism hadn’t entered our seven year old world at that time so I very much doubt there were any fire women or female builders. What I do remember about the whole affair is the costumes of the other boys. Most of them were good friends from school; I can even name a couple of them and I am confident of one or two more that would have been there even if I can’t actually picture them in the hall.

There was certainly a cowboy, Keith Elliot I think. I might be wrong about that because I think Keith was a cowboy most weekends, swaggering around the avenue in his Stetson and spinning his six guns like a miniature John Wayne. There was definitely a cowboy though so it was probably Keith. The obligatory footballer (George Bannister) was in a Stoke City top and black shorts and the Red Indian (Native North American Indians hadn’t been invented at the time), had an impressive feather head dress. Somebody’s Mum or Dad had spent a lot of time wrapping tinfoil around cardboard packages to recreate a convincing space man’s suit and there were at least a couple of rugged looking soldiers and a policeman. What you will notice about this list is a certain commonality about the various outfits, namely, they all represented what we boys wanted to be when we grew up or they fulfilled our concept of what was a hero. I know I was obsessed by football at that time and the idea of flying off to some distant planet, probably saving the world in the process, loomed large in my imagination.

Why couldn't I have been a knight?

Why couldn’t I have been a knight?

By now you are probably keen to know what daring hero I represented that day and I wish I could tell you that I was an astronaut or a knight in shining armour but alas no. I can only assume that my own fancy dress outfit wasn’t so much chosen as clutched at. My Mum was a working one and as such probably didn’t have the time to start constructing some elaborate Hollywood style costume so when Mrs. Thorpe from across the road offered to lend us a ready-made one she was probably hugely relieved and grateful. I suppose at such a tender age I trusted my Mum’s judgment implicitly and having donned my outfit I probably trundled off the party full of beans, excited to show off to my friends. It was only once there, with time to consider the relative macho qualities of all the boys various disguises and contrasting them with my own particular regalia that it began to dawn on me what a terrible predicament I was in.

A strawberry! Really? Yes, I kid you not I was a strawberry. How could anybody think it was a good idea to send me along dressed as a strawberry? The voluminous bright red body of the fruit was topped off with a green ruff and a silly little green hat with a stalk on the top. I looked completely ridiculous and felt so too. The hot prickly tears of humiliation that I desperately tried to suppress that day are welling up once more in my eyes even as I type.

I try not to blame my Mum but whenever anybody mentions ‘five a day’ and I think guiltily about the limited amount and variety of fresh fruit in my diet, I can’t help but wonder if my aversion to the stuff, and particularly strawberries, started back then at that fancy dress party. Scarred for life I am.

Falling in love again

It’s been over four months since I went for a bike ride. Since we got back from our tour around Britain neither of us have had much interest in cycling. It felt like we were all pedalled out and the thought of pumping up the tyres and getting back in the saddle just didn’t appeal. Until today that is.  I’m not sure whether it was the signs of spring all around us or the sight of so many people enjoying a ride in the sunshine yesterday but all of a sudden we both felt as if it was time to get back on the bikes.

We didn’t go very far but it was a very special ride because it has resulted in me falling in love again.

There is no doubt that after a break of this length the bike always feels uncomfortable. The reach to the bars is too long, the saddle is too hard and I feel like the whole bike is too big. It just doesn’t feel right. I know from past experience that it will take several rides of increasing distance before that old oneness with the machine comes back and we become a team again. Before muscle and metal meld into a single entity once more. It’s nothing to worry about, just odd. I suppose we are both just a bit rusty.

My trusty steed at Land's End last year.

My trusty steed at Land’s End last year.

Contrast this with the amazing feeling that I get just one or two miles into the ride. Despite the awkwardness, I am struck all over again by the efficiency of this marvellous machine. If you have even a small amount of fitness then it takes no effort at all to propel both rider and bike along at an amazing speed. For the same effort as walking at a modest pace a bike will take you many, many times further in any given time-span. It is like a magic trick.

This sense of magic comes over me as if I am riding the bike for the very first time. As if the bike itself is a completely new invention and it fills me full of joy every time it happens. I am convinced that this mechanical advantage is partly responsible for the sense of freedom that every child gets when they first learn to ride a bike. They might not consider the physics of it, but suddenly they are moving faster under their own steam than they have ever done before in their lives. One minute dad is hanging onto the saddle to keep them upright and then the next moment he is history. He is completely unable to keep up with the child who up until this moment has always been just a stride or two away. Always under his control. Not any longer. The bike gives a child a freedom of such scope that they may never experience anything quite like it again. Many of us will spend a lifetime trying to recreate that feeling but it can never be available with such intensity again. The pure joy it brings is dependent on its very transience. It simply can’t be had twice.

I think what I felt today, just like I do whenever I get back on the bike after a break, is a faint but very tangible connection with that special moment from my childhood. That unadulterated joy that comes from being able to travel so easily, so simply and so independently. I think it’s this simple childish pleasure that is at the core of cycling and especially cycle touring. It gives me a sense of freedom that nothing else manages to do. It’s magic. Like being a child again.

Perhaps it is time to get the maps out of their boxes. Time to start dreaming once more.

Signs of Spring

Signs of Spring

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