Bodies in Motionby Sean O'Toole / 06.07.2009
I admire JM Coetzee for more than just his laconic approach to making sentences. I too share in his admiration for the bicycle, that simple piece of architecture that makes momentum and speed possible. Still, you have to wonder if this master of restraint wasn’t overstating it when he described the bicycle as “the one indubitably triumphant contribution of western technology to the world”.
I think it is fair to say that bicycles are fetish objects, their admirers often a tad bonkers. For confirmation simply switch over to DSTV this month. It’s Tour de France time. Coetzee incidentally is a fan of the Tour. But then why should this come as a surprise.
“Back in Australia I cycle every day,” he is quoted as telling Will McDonald, a University of Texas undergraduate who unexpectedly bumped into the Nobel laureate on the top floor of the university’s Perry Castañeda Library in 2004.
“I’ve always believed that ‘there are much more important things in life than being prudent’,” McDonald reports Coetzee as telling him. “These days I do what I want to do, not what I’m supposed to do. This afternoon I’d much rather go cycling than sit listening to speeches.”
Which is exactly what the pair did, Coetzee arriving dressed in “spandex shorts and a flamboyant lycra bike jersey”.
The image of silver-haired Coetzee in tights is compelling, largely because it runs counter to the stock portrayal. Austere, cerebral and unsmiling is how photographers and cartoonists tend to describe the former Worcester youth, never as a stock standard Capetonian with a yearning for stretch pants.
Of course writers are complicit in the manufacture of their highfalutin public images. Did you know that Justin Cartwright surfs? I didn’t. (He surfs Polzeath and Epphaven Cove in Cornwall, Llandudno when he is in Cape Town.) When a colleague, an editor at the Sunday Times, asked the Oxford trained writer if he would agree to pose in his wetsuit for the profile article, he declined.
Which makes me like Kraftwerk all that much more. Formed in 1969 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, this pioneering German electronic band created the template for late twentieth century pop. Doof, doof, doof. Or as Kraftwerk put it to bewildered rock journalists in 1974: “Our drummers don’t sweat anymore.”
Like Coetzee, Kraftwerk shun the media spotlight. They rarely grant interviews. Word is that fan mail is returned un-opened. Like Coetzee, they also have a thing for bicycles. Aptly, in 1983 they released a song dedicated to the Tour de France. It is worth tracking down an original copy of the 12” version, one for François Kevorkian’s kicking remix on the flipside, two for the cover artwork, an adaptation of a 1953 Hungarian postage stamp featuring two cyclists.
Making sense of why Kraftwerk are so enthralled by bicycles has long been a pursuit of sophists and journalists with graduate degrees. In a 2001 Kraftwerk biography, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, Music, Hütter tells author Pascal Bussy that cycling offers a means to relax. “When you ride a bicycle, you don’t think about the new album, about how we are going to launch it.” No great insight there. But cycling is more than just a way to steal some R & R for the abstruse Germans.
“Holidays are an alienation, a consumption concept,” says Hütter. “To relax ourselves, we ride the bicycle, it’s enough. We are liberated from holidays.”
No doubt that this year’s group of riders in the Tour will need a holiday. Their month-long ordeal climaxes on the penultimate day, Saturday July 25, with a mountain finish. Mont Ventoux.
“The Ventoux, thrusting abundantly skywards, is a god of Evil to whom sacrifice must be paid. A true Moloch, a despot of cyclists, it never pardons the weak and exacts an unjust tribute of suffering.” Roland Barthes, French philosopher of the ordinary, wrote that in 1957. He too was absorbed by the spectacle that is the Tour de France.