Dream Roadster Shakedown – an inadvertent trailer

This started inauspiciously: I set out intending to go over by Callarfountain into Strathearn, a fine rough path that would suit the roadster I thought, preceded by a stiff climb that would test the Mountain Drive (and me).

I didn’t get far – about a third of the way up Glenlochay Road in bottom gear – legs thrashing furiously – my chain snapped…

Well now!

– to find out what happened next, you should visit my new blog, 40-635, which is where I meant to post this – it’s all about my bicycle adventures.There are lots of pictures!

This particular story continues here: Dream Roadster Shakedown.



Vanishing Point and the Golden Rule (by way of Immanuel Kant)

I remember once becoming absurdly excited in Princes St. Gardens in Edinburgh – that was just where I chanced to be, not the cause of the excitement – when I realised that an interesting thing happens if you number the dimensions in the reverse of the conventional order.

My brother had once explained the concept of the fourth dimension to me by saying that it was ‘at right-angles to the third’ which he elucidated by explaining that, as a point drawn out in one direction gives a line, so that line, moved at right angles to itself, generates a plane surface, which in turn generates a volume when moved at right angles to itself; hence the next dimension, the fourth, must involve performing an identical operation with a cube.

This I found pleasantly bamboozling: I could follow the first three steps of the procedure perfectly, yet with the fourth there seemed nowhere left to go; yet I convinced myself that dwellers in a linear or planar universe would experience the same difficulty at stages two and three. Later, when the same brother suggested that the fourth dimension was Time, I formed some notion of a cube moving through space and leaving a sort of cubic trail behind it – which was the direction I was headed in when I started thinking about Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, here . There is a similar though less marked suggestion of movement in time in this picture, where Miss Kate Ward has admirably captured the headlong speed of my Dursley-Pedersen:

Dursley-Pedersen at speed

John Ward at speed on his Dursley Pedersen, photographed by his daughter Kate

But in Princes Street Gardens it struck me that if we begin with volume as the first dimension – and picture a cube, say – we can abstract a second dimension from that by attending to one of its surfaces and ignoring the rest; then by the same method, we can consider the edge of that surface in isolation to give us a line – from where, if we wish, we can go to its end, and arrive at a point – but that is, indeed, the end, and there is literally no point in going beyond it.

I still consider that a neat manoeuvre, though nowadays I am more interested in the point you end up with than in the doing away with the need for any further dimensions.

Duchamp’s nude shows a temporal sequence as a spatial one, and that is consistent with our normal usage, which is to talk about time in spatial terms – we speak of a length of time, a short time, a space of time and so on, and we use ‘before’ and ‘after’ – which denote spatial relations – to speak of temporal ones.

It is clear that the ideas of space, time and movement are bound together: indeed we use movement through space (which takes time) as a way of thinking about time, even where no movement through space is involved – and since we developed film technology, we have reinforced this with time-lapse photography, so that we see flowers opening and closing, buildings being erected, even carcases decaying – though in fact there is movement there, without change of location, though it is normally too slow for us to perceive as such – we only notice that there has been a significant change from an earlier state to a later one, without detecting it from moment to moment.

But could you arrive at the notion of movement (and so of time) in a world of immutable Forms, such as Plato envisages in his Republic? The Forms are timeless and unchanging, but if they are distinct and separate (and extended, for how else could we picture them?) it would seem that they must occupy space and there must be distance between them; and where there is distance, there is surely the possibility of movement, and so of time, even if there is none actually?

However, we have introduced another element here, the one that Berkeley drew to our attention: a perceiver. To picture a world of timeless forms is to do so from some point of view, a particular location within that world, and it would seem to be from there that the notion of movement arises – and indeed, might we go further and suggest that it is location that gives rise to the concept of space?

Does a point imply space? in other words, is even a point – location without extension – sufficient to require the whole of infinite space for it to be located in, or is that just a product of our thinking being tied to a three-dimensional model to start with?

But there is some sleight-of-mind here: we might picture a point in space from which we look outward, and so gain some sense of depth and distance, but in what direction are we looking? more to the point, what are we looking with? It seems we have smuggled in an eye, albeit an invisible one – though you might well ask how you can have an eye without a lens, an iris, an optic nerve – and some sort perceptive apparatus at the other end of that nerve.

This leads me to Kant, and his observation that ‘space, time and causality are the mode and manner of our perception.’ Hume – whom Kant spoke of as having roused him from his dogmatic slumber – had suggested that the only way we could arrive at an idea of causality was through observing invariable succession – we see that A is invariably followed by B and in time conclude that A causes B. This is not a very satisfactory account, and it is thoroughly demolished by Schopenhauer, who points out that the most familiar and invariable succession of night and day does not lead us to suppose that one causes the other.

It is, however, the best you can do if you want to insist – as Hume did – on the empirical principle, i.e. that all knowledge is derived from experience, via the senses. What Hume failed to grasp, as Schopenhauer pointed out, is that perception is an intellectual act, not the passive process Hume supposed it to be – the mind works on and arranges the data supplied by the senses – in fact it makes sense of them.

The stepping stone between Hume and Schopenhauer is Kant, who realised that causality was not something we derived from experience, but rather a pre-requisite for making sense of it – it is, if you like, part of our intellectual apparatus; and it is not alone – he couples it with Time and Space, grouping all three together as ‘the mode and manner of our perception’ and putting forward the notion that, far from being derived from experience, these three are the means by which we make sense of experience itself. In this, they have been likened to a set of spectacles that we cannot remove, even when we realise that they  condition all that we see. We are therefore in the frustrating position of knowing that the world as we know it exists only for us (or those similarly equipped) which is the truth that Berkeley realised with his esse est percipi ; what the world is actually like in itself (i.e. unconditioned by the apparatus of space, time and causality) we cannot imagine.

This is what started, like a hare from its form, the ding-an-sich or thing-in-itself which Schopenhauer eventually ran to ground (with the aid of oriental philosophy). Schopenhauer’s brilliant move is to point out that, while the world as it is known to us via the senses is indeed much as Kant suggests, a world of representation, of objects-for-the-subject, conditioned by our intellectual apparatus, that is not the sole aspect we have access to – if we turn our eyes inward, as it were, we become aware that there is, in ourselves, a sort of privileged glimpse of the inner nature of the world, the very thing-in-itself – namely, the Will.

For Schopenhauer, we as individuals are self-conscious outposts of a single and otherwise blind and unconscious Will which is manifested everywhere and in everything and whose sole aim is to exist. This has echoes in our own day in the ideas of the evolutionary biologists, that we are in effect the mere by-product of our genes’ determination to reproduce ad infinitum. It is not of course original to Schopenhauer, who derived it from his reading of ancient Eastern, particularly Indian, philosophy.

Schopenhauer draws pessimistic conclusions from this: effectively, all that self-consciousness has done is make us helpless spectators, aware that we are embodiments of a will that we cannot control but which rather drives us: all we can do, at best, is to quiet the will, to turn away from existence (though Arthur himself was happy to keep going to what was then the ripe old age of 72). Nietzsche, who saw himself as a disciple of Schopenhauer, takes the idea in a more sinister direction: we can embrace our situation, and recognise that the will takes us beyond good and evil – if we are strong, we should follow its promptings wherever it leads us and glory in it, rejecting the ‘slave mentality’ of judaeo-christian thought, which he saw as essentially a conspiracy of the weak to keep power from the strong. You do not need to go far beyond Nietzsche (he died, insane, in 1900) to find the horrors to which that ultimately led.

Yet this interpretation seems to turn on a needlessly pessimistic interpretation of the nature of the Will coupled to an erroneous aggrandisement of our own status – both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche assume that, in coming to consciousness in Man, the Will has attained its highest form of existence (though Nietzsche might qualify that by adding ‘so far’). However, if we look more closely at the judaeo-christian tradition which Nietzsche dismisses and at the Eastern thought that Schopenhauer derived his ideas from, we find a different way of looking at it – having looked into ourselves, and seen that we are embodiments of a single will (and might that will not be higher, rather than lower, and ourselves just waking into it, not yet fully comprehending it?) we can then look outwards again and see others not as different from ourselves but essentially the same – which is the foundation of compassion and the Golden Rule which characterises all the great belief systems – ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ – or, if you prefer, love your neighbour as yourself  – (because that is what, in effect, he is). (For an excellent and inspiring 10’ talk on the Golden rule, click here. )

An Each Uisge (The Water Horse)

written as a “Fearie Tale” for Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Winter Words Festival 2013

(where it was admirably read by Dougal Lee on 2 February (an auspicious date -James Joyce’s birthday))


– Looks as if it was fished out of a canal, I say.

He doesn’t like that, the man behind the counter, a big fellow with a beard and a shaggy black mane, gloomy as his shop; probably thinks I’m trying to lower the price, but really it was just an observation – it does look as if it has spent some time under water, and you always think of canals when you imagine people pitching old bicycles into water (along with supermarket trolleys and bedsteads, for some reason)

– There’s no canals near here, he says.

Apart from the Caledonian, I think, but say nothing, fearing to give offence – after all, he is a native, by his accent: I have only lived here twenty years, which round here means you’re scarcely in the door. And he looks the touchy sort who might on a whim decide to sell me nothing at any price – how else to explain a shop that does so little to accommodate the buyer? Nothing priced, everything piled up in no sort of order, enamel basins, umbrella stands, coal-scuttles, standard lamps, stuffed birds in glass cases, a zinc bath full of clocks – and my object of interest, a very big, very old bicycle frame.

– There’s a box of bits goes with it, says the man, after we have agreed a price.

I shake my head. I do not want a box of bits. I already have enough bits at home – all I need is a frame. What I want to make is a straightforward bitsabike – bitsa this, bitsa that – a mongrel concoction I can have up and running right away. I am not interested in assembling a period piece, for the simple reason that I can see myself in two years’ time, the bike still incomplete and unused, while I scour the country for those last few original components that will add the finishing touch, without which it simply won’t be complete. I have been here before, you see, and know all about the siren lure of authenticity. But the bearded fellow is stubborn.

– It belongs with the bike, he insists. Included in the price.

Then let me have the frame for less, I think, but say

– Too awkward to carry: I haven’t a car.
– I’ll bring it round. Are you far?

Far enough, as it happens, but that doesn’t bother him. He seems anxious for me to have it.

– It all goes together, he insists.

There is an edge to his tone that suggests further refusal would be unwise. For a moment, I am stubborn enough to resist – why is he so eager? but the shop is remote and the man is bigger than me, of an uncertain temperament, and I do want the frame – so what if I have to take the bits as well? It’s not as if he can make me use them!

Once I’m on my way – I insist on taking the frame with me, in case he has second thoughts – I realise that all he was anxious about was clearing a bit of space – he could certainly do with some!

Yes, that’s all it was, I’m sure – why should there be any sinister motive?


Well, the bike is a great success. I’ve rigged it as a fixed gear – no freewheel, so if you back-pedal, it goes backwards – in theory; in practice it serves instead of a rear brake. The sensation is quite different from a normal bike: you work with it, rather than controlling it – it’s more like a living thing. You really need to concentrate when you ride it – no bad thing – which has a peculiarly liberating effect: on my other bike I always set out to go somewhere; on the fixed I’m content to let it take me where it will.

If only I could persuade my publisher to take a book on fixed-wheel cycling rather than Highland folklore!

– It’s just not the right book for me, I moan to my agent. I’m a rational man, a member of the Humanist Society: how can you expect me to write about kelpies?
– Any book your publisher actually wants is the right book, says she. What’s a kelpie?
– A malignant spirit that haunts lochs and streams in the guise of a horse. If you climb on his back, he carries you off to his watery lair and tears you to pieces.
– O good, you’ve begun your research. Keep at it, she says, and puts down the phone.

But keeping at it is not so easy, now that I have the fixed gear bike. I go where it takes me, cycling for the sake of it. Today I noticed an inviting gap in a wall and nipped through it, on impulse. I found myself in a wood with lots of little tracks twisting in and out among the trees and in a moment I had the sensation of being completely (and agreeably) lost. It’s remarkable how even well-spaced trees (silver birch for the most part) still cut down your view in any direction, and then of course there are the bushes which crowd in on you, more than head-high. I must have been in there for a good half-hour or more, yet I do not think I ever used the same path twice. I was surprised to find just now, looking at the map, how small a patch of ground it occupies; roughly triangular, bounded on all sides by houses. I wonder why it was never developed?

My research proceeds in a desultory fashion. One kelpie story (I’m a bit stuck on them, for some reason) gave me an idea – in it, the rider saves his life at the expense of his hand, which he has to cut off because it won’t let go of the kelpie’s mane. That put me in mind of the old punishment for thieves, and made me wonder if the whole kelpie thing wasn’t perhaps intended as a discouragement to horse-thieving. The Kelpie, of course, is a shape-changer, able to assume whatever form he thinks will tempt the unwary traveller – how might he appear nowadays? Maybe I could sell my publisher on the idea of rational explanations of Highland folklore? Worth a try!

Well, good news and bad news: I fear I have succumbed to the temptation of the “box of bits”. I can plead necessity in my defence, but only partly. When I went to take the fixed out this morning, I found that the front wheel was badly out of true, and indeed closer inspection showed that several spokes were broken. How could I have failed to notice that yesterday? The machine is virtually unrideable. So there was nothing for it but to raid the famous box, which I had stowed in the cellar as soon as the bearded one brought it – out of sight, out of mind, or so I thought – but it got to me in the end! The good news? I found a pair of wheels that, for all their age, were remarkably straight and true – and with wooden rims, would you believe! I was only going to use the front, but then I saw the rear was rigged with a fixed gear too – in fact, it probably predates freewheels – and they do sort of go together. It means I’ve had to discard the front brake, which I meant to do anyway – makes me more at one with the bike (or more at its mercy, if you prefer). And it rides beautifully.

Back to my wood again! It really is extraordinary how quickly you lose all sense of direction there – even when you must be close to the perimeter, you never seem to see the outside world: when you stop (I try not to) you could be in the heart of a forest. (I suppose it could be the remnant of an ancient forest – just one of those left-over bits of ground that never got built on, for some reason)

Something else that contributes to the illusion of expansiveness, I’ve realised, is the variation in level within the wood – though the land around is pretty flat, among the trees are unexpected dips and hollows. That’s something you notice on a fixed-gear without brakes: a sudden descent can be, well, exhilarating – excitement mingled with just a touch of fear. On one occasion I was hanging on for dear life, twisting and turning among the trees, bumping over exposed roots, skidding on fallen leaves, when at last (though it can only have been a matter of seconds, really) the ground levelled out and I found myself at the bottom of a deep dell, with some sort of pool just visible through a grove of trees. It was so unexpected that I wish now I had stopped to take a look around, but I was a bit high after my crazy descent and didn’t want to cool down.

When I got home, I felt so exhilarated with my ride – the new, or should I say old wheels have made such a difference to the ride – so responsive, almost as if it was alive – that I decided to restore the rest of the components. I’d no sooner made my mind up to do this than I was suddenly fearful that none of it would be usable – the cellar felt so damp (something I’ve never noticed before) that I was sure it would be all rusted; but to my surprise, though it felt wet to the touch – a protective layer of oil, perhaps? – it was all in remarkably good condition: all the metal parts are finished in some sort of dark coating of a kind I haven’t seen before, so I suppose that’s kept them good. I have to confess that I put it all together in a sort of frenzy, as if it was the one important thing I had to do – not an opinion my publisher or agent would share, I’m sure! Anyway, it’s completely authentic now, apart from the saddle – there was none in the box. I’ll have to keep an eye out for something suitable.

On the book front, I find that (according to some authorities) the kelpie is strictly speaking a river spirit: its counterpart that haunts lochs and pools is called in Gaelic an Each Uisge (the water horse) and is by all accounts a much more dangerous creature, far surpassing it in cunning and malignancy.


An odd experience this morning: I was out on my other bike and decided to try it in the wood. For some reason I could not find any of the entrances I normally use (there are several, all a bit hidden away – gaps in walls, or up lanes between houses) and had to go in by the main route, a tarmac path. Before I knew it, I was through to the other side, with no opportunity to turn off having presented itself. Yet in the afternoon I went back on the fixed, through the usual hole in the wall (which I found with no bother). I ended up in the dell again, but I must have been mistaken about the water – there was no sign of any (unless, of course, there is more than one dell?).

I think I must be working too hard. I realised today that over the past week or so I have been conducting a series of experiments without ever admitting to myself what I was doing. In the mornings, I try to reach the wood on my other bicycle, yet rarely seem to make it – on one occasion, a man I didn’t like the look of went in just ahead of me, so I made that an excuse to turn aside; another time, there was a formidable black dog lurking in among the trees, apparently without its master. If I do get in, I never seem to stay long – there doesn’t seem anywhere to go, apart from the main paths which just carry you straight through. Yet returning on the fixed-gear in the afternoon I can happily lose an hour just roaming – and I never seem to meet anyone.


There is something a bit edgy about being in the wood, now that Autumn has set in – the low angle of the sun makes you think how soon it will be dark, and there are scarves of mist lying on the damp ground. I have established that there must be two dells, because this afternoon I saw the water again, beyond the grove of trees. I would have stopped to investigate but the light was going and I was troubled by the absurd notion that I might get lost – I say “absurd” because I know perfectly well that the wood occupies only a small area and any determined attempt to leave it would succeed; and yet there is a strange reluctance to do anything like that – you feel you have to stick to the paths, like some sort of game, so you always spend much more time in there than you intend. It takes a real effort of will to come away.

Reflecting on these things in the comfort of my armchair, I realise that in all this there is an element of complicity on my part – I allow myself to be deflected when I am on the other bike – it is almost as if I am searching for an excuse not to go in – just as I play at being lost on the fixed wheel, when all the time I know I could find my way out if I wanted to. I’m sure there’s a rational psychological explanation for it all, and that it’s bound up with this blasted book I am managing not to write.

The only progress I’ve made is the discovery that, according to some sources, the Each Uisge sometimes had a human accomplice – this would be someone who had struck a bargain with it to save his own life. In return, he had to promise to keep the Each Uisge supplied with victims. I wonder if that could be rationalised as some hard-case employed by local horse-owners to protect their beasts? I suppose such a one would be paid by results, and wouldn’t be above a bit of entrapment to line his own pockets, luring likely lads into temptation by pretending to collude with them, only to turn on them? It would be easy to see how countryfolk would come to regard such a one as a sort of devil’s accomplice –

But who’s that at the door at this time of night?

Well, that is a turn up for the books! The man from the junk shop! He hovers outside on the step, holding something in his hands that I can’t make out. I invite him in. He crosses the threshold and thrusts a package at me, done up in brown paper and string.

– Thought you’d be wanting this, he says. I came across it in the shop – it belongs with the rest.
– Thank you, I say, somewhat taken aback.

His gaze lingers a moment at some point behind me, where I know the bike is leaning against the wall. There is an odd glint in his eye that reminds me of our first encounter in the shop and makes me eager to see the back of him. Only when he’s out the door do I turn my attention to the parcel. What can it be? It’s certainly heavy enough.

Well, how about that? It’s a saddle! It certainly looks authentic, though I can’t say I’ve ever come across a cover like that – it isn’t smooth, like leather, it has a sort of fell to it, like some sort of animal skin.


Funny how these things always take longer than you think – a whole morning just to fit a saddle! But I have to admit it looks well – and so inviting! Once you were on that, you feel you’d never want to get off! I was all ready to go – make the most of the daylight – when I saw the other package on the floor – just a small thing, in a twist of the same brown paper the saddle was in – I must have dropped it there last night. Bit of a mystery – seems to be caked in black wax, but these two projections look familiar – of course, they line up with the holes in the head-tube – it must be a badge of some sort! There now, it’s slipped into place, must be some sort of spring fitting, it seems quite secure – but I’ll need to get that wax off to see what it is.

Mm, no maker’s name – that’s a bit unusual – but the badge design is certainly distinctive – someone should be able to identify that for me. Must send a picture to the Boneshaker, the VCC magazine. How would I describe it? A sort of hybrid creature: the rear half is a fish, its scaly body twisted round in an improbable but artistic loop; the forequarters are those of a horse.

How it gleams!

That is it finished, now.

Pity there isn’t a lamp-bracket: I really ought to rig a lamp before I go. The light fails insidiously on these November afternoons; the colour seeps out of everything, and before you know it, all is dark.



My Bicycles

I am a man of many bicycles: too many, some might say. Here are some:

there’s the c1924 Royal Sunbeam:


On which I once rode from Inverness to Dunkeld in a day, a feat alluded to here (where I see I have dated it 1923), and its younger brother, the 1934 Royal Sunbeam:


and of course that extraordinary machine, The c.1905 Dursley Pedersen (though it, too, has a touch of the Sunbeam about it at the moment, running as it does a 1910 Sunbeam ‘stepped’ 3-speed hub) :


(seen here framed by the old bridge over the Tay).

And just to show that I am not entirely in thrall to the past, there’s the little Dawes Tartan Tourist, currently running a fixed gear, which is certainly post-war:

And just while we’re at it, the Pedersen ran as a fixed gear for a while, and was featured here, in Dennis Bean-Larson’s Fixed Gear Gallery, though it never shows up in searches because the name in the link is mis-spelt (Dursley Pederson).

If you like this kind of thing, there’s lots more on my Flickr page.

Here’s some I wrote earlier…

Once upon a time, there was a splendid site about fixed-gear cycling called 63xc, run by Will Meister, proprietor of the coolest cycleshop in cyberspace, Hubjub. (I have just learned that Hubjub has now changed hands – I hope it continues the excellent service Will established)

This is a piece I wrote for Will in the days when I dwelt in Hyperborea, on the advantages of cycling to work even when you work at home.

And here is clip of me performing the very action which in an earlier post I had confessed was a mystery to me.

If you want compelling evidence of the truth of the Atomic Theory as outlined in that earlier post see here.