Thursday, 22 July 2010

Strange things you find, some of them in your own genes.

By pure accident, while shifting some things around in my house the other day I found my grandfather’s eulogy. I’m not actually sure who wrote it, as I missed the funeral, but I was mildly intrigued, so broke off from packing books into boxes and sat down with a glass of chianti and had a read (it was actually a tumbler thus drinking wine in the middle of the day was acceptable).

I was interested to find this little excerpt:

Vaughan (my Grandfather) loved words. He loved talking, he loved listening, he loved ideas. He loved the beauty and power of the English language – he loved using it and hearing it well used. He could always find the right words to convey a thought, a hope or an emotion. His original imagery and forceful delivery delighted many audiences. He once defined his job as “Passing on visions wrapped up in words”

It was startling to me as I not so long ago found this in my own father’s first draft of his autobiography (A true Southam tradition):

I’ve also got an admission to make; I’ve recently fallen in love again. Not with some dazzling young female but with the English language. Being dyslexic made my early relationship with the English language a difficult one, but no more. I love it. It’s history, it’s staggering richness, the wide choice of words, its subtleness, its ability to continuously evolve, and the wonderful words themselves.

I love and adore what I call ‘big words’. Whenever I come across a new one I write it down and look up it’s meaning, like yesterday it was cunctation, meaning procrastination, and then try in some way to use it.

And then there is me, and I seem somehow to have inherited this love of language, I can see myself in both of these glimpses of the love of language that my father and his father both clearly harbored.

It wouldn’t seem so interesting to me had my grandfather, or my father been authors, or had this love ever been vocalized, but it hasn’t, ever. We all just seem to have stumbled across this same passion, it makes me wonder, if a love for language and communication could be part of your make up? Or, if these things are incidental, products of similar environments or simply a learned upbringing and urge to communicate?

Whatever the case if this has been passed down, what on earth happened to the hard-work gene? By the looks of the rest of this eulogy, that was fairly important to one Vaughan Southam, I’m not so sure that will appear in mine, nor dads for that matter.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

American Slang

Simply the best album I have listened to all year, American Slang by The Gaslight Anthem. Listening to the same album over and over reminds me of my youth, when I only had two tapes, and yet seemed to get through just with them. Once in fact I made a cassette with Dock of the Bay on repeat for 45 minutes (thats seven times over, in case you wondered) It's rare that I get an album good enough to listen to over and over these days, this one really is.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Plotting and scheming

In my further research for a real grip on this the best idea I had put to me by Suzy was the mood board. I didn't really know what one was but unknown to me I have been mood boarding my life since I was 18. All the journals I've ever kept are loosely filled with lists of songs, lyrics, movies, places, different foods, girls, races, pictures.

It's funny but I kind of knew it would be good to keep all this, but never knew why. I am glad I did now, I am starting to see the birth of something here, not simply the writing bits, but the exact thought patterns, images and inspiration that I need.

The most interesting of all this was going back and reading my early blogs for the British Cycling website. I have every blog I've ever written on file, dating back to our trip to Montenegro in April 2000. The thing that struck me was; firstly how BAD the blogs are, even when I got to a period where I thought the writing was quite good (around 2004) it is still terrible, so thanks everyone for encouraging me to write - god only knows why you thought it was good.

Secondly I was astounded at the boy that I met when I read these blogs, in the ten years between then and now I haven't noticed the small changes that have made me from Tom Southam the boy to Tom Southam the older boy. I was genuinely startled that I ever used to think, talk or simply be like that.

Quite a trip, and I have only just gone through a few of them. It's quite hard listening to yourself al day. But good news is I know it's in there somewhere, all here, now its a matter of picking through these bits, and I'm looking forward to seeing who I meet along the way.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Herbie & Laurent

In a bid to research for my book I have been getting my way through a good few more cycling books than usual, the highlight of this so far has turned out to be Herbie Sykes’ The Eagle of the Cantavese while the real disappointment has been the newly translated We were young and carefree by Laurent Fignon.

Herbie actually sent me his book a while ago as I had been pestering him with a few writing related questions, I figured I was on to a winner when the first things he did was recommend I read American Pastoral and quote Kurt Vonnegut. Most cycling writers I come across give you the impression they are just failed riders who enjoyed English G.C.S.E (some, the better ones, even admit to that).

Where Herbie’s book looks for all the stories, the tales, the lives and the details of his subject, Fignon just seems to breeze through all this, trying simply (and failing in my mind) to prove that he was actually a great champion who was dealt more than his fair share of bad luck. Maybe this is really what it looks like through a champion’s eye, but in not taking into account his audience, he simply comes across as more arrogant than I imagined and totally lacks any humility.

I see Fignon as a man who had a chip on his shoulder, then lost the Tour and found that chip became a dent; the thing is - I’m not so sure that I need to hear about it. There are many many hard luck stories in cycling, a quick leaf through the lives of many of the post-war Italian cyclists that appear in Herbie’s book is testament to that, but I think it really is the way you tell ‘em.

The good bits of course, of Fignon’s book, are the revelations about the Columbian riders importing coke into Europe in their frames and ‘handing it out by the bag-load’ after Lucho Herrera’s win in the 1986 Tour of Spain, and how while racing in Columbia the entire Renault Elf team rode the last stage after knocking back a gram each.

Both these books are adherent to the trend in cycling books to be historical and really focus on a bygone eras for cycling, and both of them seem to lament those epochs passing. It reminds me of something I read in Kurt Vonnegut’s marvellous little volume A Man Without a Country (which, I think is worth a read every few months or so as it is the closest I think anyone has ever come to explaining what it’s all about) that;

‘There have never been any ”Good Old Days,” there have just been days’.

And of course coming as it does from the mind of Vonnegut that quote rings true. I can be guilty of this kind of rose tinted viewing of bygone eras in cycling. Looking through my own blogs and writings I can really see why I was so attracted to what I thought Fignon would have to say. I saw him as the last bastion of the ‘old ways’ of cycling, as, it turns out did he, claiming that his loss in the 1989 Tour was the moment cycling changed forever, from a bespoke trade and tradition of ‘winners’ to a factory made assembly line of ‘earners’.

But then, I go back to Herbie’s book and I can here the same things being said by the elderly Italian pros, that things changed forever after that time, and (obviously) got a lot worse. To be honest riding in either era looked bloody horrible in certain respects, and completely unstable financially, as well as downright dangerous.

So, note to self while I go through the thought process in creating the shape of my book, avoid telling everyone that things changed for the worse when Lance won the Tour (that was where I had my personal marker for the shift between one cycling world and another) and focus more on just what happened in those days, that were neither good, nor bad, but just simply days.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

I think I have worked out what it is that I miss so much when I am stuck unable to ride my bike, or just reduced simply, to short elbow aggravating sorties every other day. Most bike riders in this situation would suggest they simply miss the buzz of exercise; the sensations of sweating, the feeling of breathing deeply while your heart pounds out of your chest. But I think that's too simple a take on things for me.

Maybe I miss the satisfaction of being fit, lean and knowing everything is working pretty well – you know your body a lot better when its condition is the focal point of your life. But then it’s also damn hard work so it’s isn’t really great shakes to be told that you re not able to wear yourself out for a few weeks.

I know the extra two kilos that have crept up on me will be worked off, I know the muscles that seem to have forgotten that they ever had a job to do and have rolled out their beach towel and dozed off to sleep, but inevitably I will work them back to strength. I like the satisfaction of the hard work, but I don’t miss it.

It’s not really the competition I miss either, I do find it hard to not go along to the races and be stuck in the same town for more than two weeks at a time. But then, I have raced and journeyed enough in my life now to appreciate the break. Plus if I need a really competitive time we can always go to the park with the girls and play just about any game you can imagine. If you thought being part of the peleton was fierce, try playing boule with girls on a calm summers afternoon.

There is of course a little element of camaraderie that I miss, not being out on top of the Mendips with one or two of my mates on my bike does bother me a little bit, but we still catch up at the coffee shop, or the bar, or wherever. What with most of my mates being bike riders anyway, I don’t miss out on that social element. I just miss out on those moments when you are convinced, in your slightly fatigued state that the ‘mate’ you are riding with actually really wants to hurt you.

It took me a while to work out exactly what it was that I was missing. I have been quite a lucky guy this year in that during the time that I haven’t been able to ride, the weather has been great; there have been plenty of visitors to Bristol, parties, picnics, occasions, a lengthy visit from my lady and all sorts of Pimm’s related fun. But in this, a practically unheralded dream world for me in a normal cycling season, I knew my unsettled heart was missing something.

I worked out what it was today, while I was sat alone waiting for my injured housemate outside the plastic surgery ward at Frenchay hospital. More than anything else I miss the most basic and simplistic essence of the bicycle; I miss the freedom.

I had always thought talk of the ‘freedom’ that the bicycle allows you, was peasant talk, taken straight from the pages of a biography of a poor boy who made good by riding his delivery bike further and further into the hills until finally he won France’s most prestigious amateur race on it, or the wistful poetic musings of the current crop of the peleton’s self appointed renaissance men, who can’t describe a race without saying how ‘beautiful’ everything from the dirt to the manhole covers along the roads were.

But, that is exactly what I miss. The rides I spend alone, where the physical rhythm of riding allows my brain to relax into it’s most useful and creative state, the hours I spend going through albums on my iPod and listening, really listening to them, the endless myriad of thoughts and ponderings that go on during the periods splendid isolation that the bike gives me.

Part of something and yet part of nothing, I love riding alone, I love the view it gives me, I love the thoughts I chase myself around the countryside with and then discard on the cutting room floor. I think I love the distance too, it’s a really simple thing, and I always know where I am and exactly how far form home I am, and how long it will take me to get anywhere, but I love the fact that I get to distance myself from where I dwell the rest of the time.

When I can’t ride my world really noticeably shrinks, and even though it’s a pretty cool world to hang out in, I like to be able to slip out and take myself off to for a little while. It’s certainly not the only reason I ride, but it’s one I’m looking forward to appreciating very soon.

Go easy, step lightly, stay free – The Clash