Cyclogeography by Jon Day

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Reviewed by Victoria

The term ‘psychogeography’ may sound unwieldy but it’s actually rather an intriguing and lovely notion. It ties together the ideas that inform the concept of genius loci, or the spirit of place, which in its original format often referred to a small, furry supernatural being (a guardian animal, or puck, or elf), but more generally describes the mishmash of culture, history, architecture, memories and events that converge in any given location. Maps may be very detailed and accurate representations of space, but they tell us nothing about the spirit of the place; that can only be ascertained by actually being there, and is inevitably dependent on our subjective experience. So places need people the way that people need places – they make mutual sense of each other, and bestow historical depth.

In this collection of essays, academic Jon Day looks back to a time before he taught English and was making a living as a bicycle courier in London. It was an occupation that created a whole new map of scarcely-known territory:

By bike a new and unfamiliar London unveiled itself, a London dominated by road surfaces and traffic, a London composed of loading bays and stand-by spots, characterised by a sense of movement and flow.

Cycling gave him a very different perspective on the city and created its own spirit of place.

As a courier you learn to inhabit the places in between the pickups and the drops. You learn the secret smells of the city: summer’s burnt metalic tang; the sweetness of petrol; the earthy comfort of freshly laid tarmac. Some parts of London have their own smells, like olfactory postcodes.

And each day was a melding together of man and machine, in a way that released Jon Day from the usual tedium of work in the City and stretched his physical limits too:

I loved the mindlessness of the job, the absolute focus on the body in movement, the absence of office politics and cubicle-induced anxiety. I loved the blissful, annihilating exhaustion at the end of a day’s work, the dead sleep haunted only by memories of the bicycle. By night I dreamt of half-remembered topographies, each point-to-point run connecting in an ever-expanding series.

Altogether, these new maps, and secret places and highly particular sensations come together to form ‘cyclogeography’, the unique experience of place that can only be gained from the seat of a bike in fluid motion. I quote Jon Day generously here because the topic might not sound as magical as he makes it, without examples of his gorgeously lyrical prose. In between his own experiences in the saddle, Day weaves the unexpectedly rich literature of cycling, delving into the works of writers like Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, other poets of the open road. And he also explores the history of cycling, its evolution from an extraordinarily liberating form of cheap travel at the start of the 20th century, to the province of the MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) in the 21st.

One of my favourite essays in the collection concerns bicycle racing. Day describes an ‘alleycat’, an unofficial mad dash between two checkpoints, organised and undertaken by the professional couriers. It’s a manic form of wacky races, with no rules and no set routes, just the ingenuity of the racers themselves and the hope that the regular traffic on the road will know when to get out of the way. Complementing his narration of this event is the history of the Tour de France, which involved a level of doping we could hardly credit today.

Early riders of the Tour used alcohol and ethanol to dull the pain of pushing their bodies to breaking point. In the six-day track races which were popular in the 1920s – races that wore riders down to an inhuman lump of twitching muscle – seconds used strychnine to tighten muscles, nitro-glycerine to terrify their rider’s hearts into pushing on. Later amphetamine and cocaine tinctures became prevalent.

For me this was the essence of Day’s vision; for him, cycling is about a strange but compelling mix of beauty and brutality, with brutality pretty much gaining the upper hand. There’s a powerful masochism surrounding the riders he describes, including himself, one that joins living in the margins to an exulted pride in physical achievement that amounts to self-abuse.

But the book ends on an aesthetic note. Day becomes fascinated by the possibility of performance art work involving the bike, and undertakes a couple of journeys designed to mimic work by Richard Long (who rode in an enormous circle, leaving markers along the route) and Edward Thomas (who wrote about a journey he undertook in a book called The Pursuit of Spring). Although this creates a quiet, poetic, contemplative way for Jon Day’s cycling career to come to an end, it’s the brutality that stays in the reader’s mind as the impactful experience. Whether you’re a keen racer or a Sunday cyclist, this fascinating collection of essays delivers a whole new way of experiencing the open road and a poetic vision that is fresh and excitingly new.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Read an interview with Jon Day about Cyclogeography in our BookBuzz section.

Jon Day, Cyclogeography: Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier (Notting Hill Editions: London, 2015). 978-1907903991, 168pp., hardback.

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