By Gurnam Singh | OPINION |
A recent letter in The Guardian highlights the link between the emergence of radical feminism and cycling in Britain’s social history. The piece highlights how in her teenage years in the 1890s, the great suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst recounts how she and a band of carefree lefties would ride out of Manchester each weekend. ‘Criss-crossing rural Lancashire and Cheshire, her cycling club was one of many associated with the Clarion, a popular socialist weekly newspaper’.
Reading the piece brought a smile to my face and prompted me to reminisce on my own relationship to cycling and the radical tradition. Though I have never actually belonged to a cycling club, which is probably through the fear of being left behind by younger slim athletic types, as a lone cyclist, I do have my own story linking the development of my own radical consciousness and cycling. For many years during the 1990’s, I used to cycle from my house in Warwick to the university which was some 10 miles away. It was a beautiful route through the South Warwickshire countryside. The connection is that during this period I happened to be reading two books, both linked to revolutionary socialists which have interesting associations with cycling or at least traveling on two wheels.
The first book was written by one of my heroes, Ernesto “Che” Guevara’, called The Motorcycle Diaries. It is a true story set in 1952 about two young men from Buenos Aires who set out to explore South America on a 500cc Norton. One of them was a young 23-year-old trainee doctor, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Written before the Cuban Revolution, the diaries are full of disasters, discoveries, drama, and laddish improvisations. As we all know, Che went on to become perhaps the most famous revolutionary socialist that ever existed.
Turning the clock back even further, I can recall during my teenage years in the 1970’s proudly wearing t shirts adorned by Che Guevara’s iconic image that was taken by the Cuban photographer, Alberto Korda. Instantly recognisable, the image shows a youngish man donning a tilted beret and flowing locks and scraggy beard. But perhaps most of all it was Che’s facial expression, projecting dignity and defiance, that really captured the imagination of young revolutionaries like me. He was at once a hero and role model and just looking into his face we all felt compelled to embark on the path of a revolutionary.
I think as a ‘laddish revolutionary’, though perhaps nowadays the armchair variety, I have always been inspired by Che’s impulsive escapades and courage to engage in struggles, despite the odds. For me Che was the embodiment of the Sikh concept of ‘chardhikala’ or ‘boundless optimism’. Some revolutionary struggles are political in nature, and at the extreme, as Che Guevara demonstrated, can involve armed struggle. But often, revolutionary struggles do/can take the form of confronting cultural oppression, that is repressive traditional attitudes towards women and minorities or all kinds; attitudes that are sadly still deeply lodged within our communities. If we look at the lives of the Sikh Gurus, who in their own way were revolutionaries, we can see examples of a wide range of anti-oppressive strategies, from questioning the prevailing social attitudes, education, and intellectual arguments, through to confronting rules and taking up arms, though, as Guru Gobind Singh Ji sets out, only as an absolute last resort.
The second book is Annie Cohen-Solal’s 600-page biography of Jean-Paul Sartre. It is a fascinating exposure of untold aspects of Sartre’s private and political life, especially his longstanding and complex relationship and with the feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir. In the book Cohen-Solal recounts that Sartre and de Beauvoir would often go on long cycle across the French countryside journeys to various speaking engagements and along the way they would debate any number of topics, related to existentialism, Marxism and feminism. I used to imagine being a third invisible cyclist listening in to their profound conversations as they gently meandered across the French countryside
Coming back to my humbler journeys to and from university in the Warwickshire countryside, in my own way, I, too, used my cycling as a space for reflection and thinking. Though I am otherwise a very social animal, I must admit, there is something magical about the solitude of being on your own. Though in a small country like the UK, one is never really in true isolation, as a lone cyclist on the open road I feel different emotions to those when I am with others. From a real sense of liberation to a fear that any moment might be your last, is a feeling that can only truly be experienced in solitude, in the knowledge that if something does go wrong, you are on your won. And in this heightened sense of self-reliance one does build up a kind of courage and resourcefulness that otherwise may not be possible.
I think another aspect of going solo, especially where there is a high element of risk, is the way one developed heightened sense of vulnerability. The feeling of imminent danger and worse is particularly prevalent when traveling at quite a high speed, knowing full well that if you do crash, you are alone! On longish journeys, I often find myself being transported into another space lost in my thoughts, which are almost always related to the nature of being, existence, and the meaning of life. They are in their own ways mediations and think there is something about cycling in nature, away from the noise of people that really does focus the mind.
Most people who think about cycling, and especially the long-distance version is all about the physical challenge. For sure, any activity that required the use of the body makes physical demands, but I have over the years come to realise that cycling is really all about the mind. It is a way to develop yourself intellectually and I would argue spiritually. In feeling the physical pain and existential threat, in a paradoxical sense, you experience life to its full. And when you realise this, you appreciate that the pain is a prerequisite to immense pleasure and the fear is a portal to courage, imagination and a heightened sense if being alive. Perhaps when Guru Nanak uttered the words, pain and suffering are the medicine, pleasure is the disease, this is what he was getting at. Namely, that it is important to challenge oneself, both mentally and physically, not in some pointless religious ritual of self-suffering, but to engage in a process of personal growth and development, and social change.
[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.email@example.com]
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
Towards a more loving, sharing and caring world in 2021 (Asia Samachar, 22 Dec 2020)