Wheels on Fire
One of the things I’ve been missing most during lockdown is the feeling of being in motion. A one-hour exercise period just doesn’t give you scope to get into the rhythm of a purposeful walk.
Everyone else may have turned to their bikes, but I haven’t, perhaps because I haven’t got one. As a child I learnt to ride on a heavy old adult bike called Swan Aggie (no, I don’t know why either). Swan Aggie didn’t have any gears – and not in a good way – and I’ve never been quite sure what to do with them since. I’m also a very nervous cyclist, expecting to fall off at any minute, and my legs seem to lack cycling muscles – they’ll carry me up hill and down dale all day when I’m walking, but they don’t seem able to propel me up the gentlest slope on two wheels. The combined effect of this is that at every junction or slight incline I have to get off and walk, which takes all the fun out of riding a bike.
Driving a car doesn’t cut it because you’re in charge of a potentially lethal machine and need to concentrate on what you’re doing, though I must admit to experiencing quite a thrill when visiting King’s College Hospital a few weeks ago and finding that normal parking regulations seem to have been abandoned and you can park on a yellow line with careless rapture.
Clearly what I’ve actually been missing is public transport. I want to climb up to the top of a bus (I view this as part of my exercise) and watch the world go by from this uniquely privileged vantage point: not too high to observe the street scene and do a bit of window shopping, but high enough to peer into first-floor windows for fleeting glimpses into the lives of others: their décor, their routines. If I decide to take a slow bus to Euston from the bottom of my road, I can even take in East Street Market, the Old Vic, the National Theatre, The London Eye and the Dome of St Paul’s (sigh).
I wouldn’t even mind going on the tube. Part of the pleasure there is the soundscape. As I never got to grips with Walkmen or iPods (every time I got them out I pulled the entire contents of my bag out at the same time, like a magician’s handkerchiefs), I’ve remained very attached to the different noises of doors, brakes and wheels, of tunnels suddenly opening out, and of ‘Mind the Gap’ and the idiosyncratic announcements of station staff alleviating the routine with a bit of showmanship.
But best of all would be a long-distance train journey – with a judiciously-booked-far-in-advance first-class ticket that’s cheaper than a standard one, all the way to Leeds, with a good book to leave untouched and plenty of time to get rocked into mindlessness as I watch the landscape unfold. When I got there, I’d get out, go and pay my respects to the magnificent bronze ladies in City Square bearing flaming torches (whom Alan Bennett as a boy thought were ‘right rude’), and then get back on the train and enjoy the experience all over again.