bored of excitement – the griefjunkie blog 

Edgware Road Incident

Dear Rachel,

These days, we take the fact that It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It for granted, but it wasn’t until 1983 that Fun Boy Three pointed it out, and even then they needed to feature Bananarama in order to do so. This principle can be seen in action everywhere. Take adrenaline, for example: it’s not simply that it makes time appear to pass more slowly in stressful situations, but that it does so by making you so hyper aware of your surroundings that you become effectively bionic. Time isn’t passing more slowly – your reactions are speeded up, which amounts to the same thing. You’re using the Force, basically, and your mind is working so fast that it can find itself contemplating things unconnected to your immediate surroundings.

Unexpectedly obliged to cycle at full tilt through crowds of pedestrians along the Edgware Road recently, I had an opportunity to experience this phenomenon at first hand. Instead of concentrating upon avoiding people and prams and plate glass windows, I was thinking about a man named Walter Greaves and the front door keys to my old dear’s house, which were at that point undamaged.

In 1936, Walter Greaves decided to break the world record for miles cycled in a single year. He was a decent club cyclist but not more than that, and unbeknown to him across the hemispheres, a professional Australian rider called Aussie Nicholson had had the same idea. Nicholson had the benefit of nutritionalists, climate, a lifetime of training and various support vehicles. Greaves, who had none of these things and set out from his native Bradford in a blizzard, careered across icy cobblestones for weeks until the weather finally lifted at the end of March. In the first five hundred miles, he fell off nineteen times. A strict vegetarian, he existed mainly on dates, apples, water and milk, which he drank through straws from a bottle attached to his handlebars. There was an added complication for Greaves: he had lost an arm in a childhood accident, and while riding would have his stump supported in a specially built-up cup. This quickly caused painful blistering which in turn bought about blood poisoning. None of this bothered Greaves. He rode on through everything, until he misjudged a corner during a downpour in Leeds and crashed into a delivery van, smashing most of his teeth, breaking his collarbone and requiring a hospital stay of five weeks.

On the other side of the planet, Nicholson rode up and down Bondi Beach for the benefit of the press. While the two men were not rivals as such, they knew of each others’ record attempt and kept tabs accordingly. Greaves, correctly feeling that he was losing ground, discharged himself from hospital. He gritted his remaining teeth and got on with it. On and on he rode, thundering across the Pennines and the Mendips and the Downs, as the miles in their hundreds tried to crush him, fuelled by nothing except his odd diet and unshakeable, indomitable spirit.

In November, Nicholson quit, citing exhaustion. He was so far ahead of Greaves that there seemed no point in continuing and jeopardising his Olympic Games preparation. In Britain it was winter again, and Greaves responded by riding for twenty hours at a time, hallucinating with fatigue, a skeleton of a man, dragging himself and his bike through yet more snow and rain as the year ground mercilessly on. He had never publicised his ride, but word spread; huge crowds roared him on through those last few, awful weeks. In Hyde Park in mid-December he surpassed Nicholson’s total, yet still the record remained to be beaten. Sometimes, the weather was so bad that he would ride up and down a single street over and over again, frantically adding the miles, rather than risk further injury on the open road. Unable to stand, he wobbled towards Bradford Town Hall on New Year’s Eve to a hero’s welcome, having cycled 46,000 miles. The world record belonged to him – Greaves, made of iron, had won. Being teetotal as well as vegetarian, he allowed himself a celebrationary sip of grapefruit juice before falling into a near-coma for three weeks. He was offered champagne, but replied ‘When I want to poison myself, I’ll take arsenic’.

The arsenic statement holds a clue as to why Walter Greaves goes uncelebrated, except by me. His bike is in the Bradford Industrial Museum to this day, but there is no annual commemoration, no Walter Greaves academy for cyclists, no annual charity ride. Why? Because he was a git and no one liked him, that’s why. He was so stubborn and austere that other cyclists refused to ride with him. If you went within twenty feet of him he’d harangue you until you agreed to become a Communist, and I once read that his mantra was ‘If you can’t join them, beat them’. This, by all accounts, is an entirely accurate character assessment. Everyone was impressed with what he’d done, but the way he’d done it had taken the shine off. Poor Walter. Fun Boy Three came too late for him. By the time they peaked at number 4 in the UK charts, he had Parkinson’s disease and, described as a ‘frail, ragged scarecrow’ he was barely able to climb the few stairs to his own house. Walter Greaves had only a short, penniless, forgotten time to live.

Why I thought specifically of Walter as I demonstrated commensurate bike handling skills among startled Edgware Road pedestrians is unclear. I’d had to leave the road itself to avoid a black van which attempted to drive through me as I headed towards Marble Arch at speed, and perhaps I was reminded of Walter’s delivery van encounter, nearly eighty years earlier. As I rejoined the now stationary traffic at the lights, I decided to formulate a response. Fun Boy Three’s follow up to It Ain’t What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It was Really Saying Something – also featuring Bananarama – and I felt that I too could make a fitting statement by giving the van a good keying. Riding between the lines of traffic, I applied myself to the task, using plenty of elbow grease. It was like a ‘go faster’ keying, come to think of it, so deep was the scoring, and as I went past the window, I tapped on the passenger door and showed the driver my keys. This, I suppose, was the ‘it’s the way that you do it’ part of the Fun Boy Three code of conduct. It was now that I realised that they were my old dear’s front door keys, and enthusiastic contact with the side of the van had bent them. I didn’t feel the need to ride off, though; if you’re taking time over keying someone’s van and they don’t do something about it as soon as they notice, they are unlikely to do it at all. I rode off with the traffic as the lights changed, at the same speed as the black van, only parting company three sets of lights later as I turned onto Bond Street.

I told my old dear about all this as I apologised for her bent door keys. While supportive of my actions, she commented wisely that ‘You want to be careful, mucking about with black vans. One of them might have the A Team in it’ which, like Walter Greaves and the wise words of Fun Boy Three, is advice I suggest we all remember.

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Photards:

This week’s jaunt around the shoebox full of polaroids has revealed:

Top: I was minding my own business recently, when the largest and politest man I have ever seen – he looked like a tractor in a shirt – tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘I’m terribly sorry, but would you mind moving to one side for just a moment? Prince Harry is about to come through’. The second in line to the throne is in this picture, behind all those people.

Middle: An Ipswich Town marquee in a show at which I was trading. Surreal. I imagine that the man emerging from it is about to say ‘I’ve just had the weirdest dream – I was in an Ipswich Town marquee’, then turn round and freak out.

Lower: A classic treat. I cheer myself up with this at my market stall on quiet days. It’s a simple life, in many ways. Note small plaster St Francis of Assissi statuette in the background. He’s the patron saint of market traders, and some of my counterparts like to rub his head for luck as they pass. It doesn’t bring them any.

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