I am sitting on my doorstep staring at my bike. It’s new, serviced and lubricated. I am old, arthritic and discombobulated. It’s not as if it’s some sinister exocet of a machine. It’s a pedal bike. What, as kids, we would romantically call a racing bike with drop handles, but what is now referred to simply, as a road bike. Nothing too intimidating at all. But I can’t get on it. No particular reason but I am desperately trying to find one. Approaching hurricanes, incipient man flu, disappearing deadlines, stampeding unicorns blocking the Rhigos. All terrible fabrications but they are all preferable to getting on the bike. The longer I look at the bike or the weather or my spurious schedule the more I start to think it’s’ the thing’. The thing inside us all, the unspeakable thing that now seems to be on everyone’s lips, the thing I don’t believe in and which I haven’t got.
After all, I love my bike, I’ve been riding bikes for forty years sometimes over prodigious distances. In fact in six weeks, on my birthday, I will do something I do every year and ride my age. I will be sixty-five. That’s right, sixty five which translates as sixty five. Miles. When I started forty odd years go, forward planning wasn’t my strongest game. It still isn’t, I haven’t ridden more than twenty miles all year. The stretch between being sixty four and sixty five is an uncomfortable time, covering as it does Paul McCartney’s elegy for the aged and the prospect of a pension book. Which comes complete with morbid memories of my demented mother claiming every week that she didn’t have a pension book knowing all along that she’d hidden it. In a different place every week.
Perhaps it’s not ‘the thing’, perhaps it’s an early stage of dementia and the next stage will involve me hiding the bike then claiming I’ve never had one. My resolve has already been undermined by people coming up to me and asking, “Are you still riding that bike?’ as if a mobility scooter would be more appropriate. This is usually twinned with the torpedo silent killer of a question, “ not writing those plays anymore are you?” A deadly strike that sinks you into the deep bed of redundancy.
I’m not ready for redundancy. For a kick off, as a professional playwright and actor, redundancy doesn’t’ come with a pay off, it comes with a punch line. Bang, bang, you’re dead! I can’t afford it, and as for retirement in this business you’re semi retired for most of your working life, surviving on a diet of hope. You don’t retire from hope, it retires you. But it still defines you. I ride bikes and I write plays. Often at the same time. It doesn’t go away. But I’m still sitting on my doorstep staring at my bike.
And I know it’s only a matter of time before I wheel the bike back into the shed, lock it up, get out of my fat suit lycra, and spend a mind numbing hour pounding my joints in front of some fitness video like some house bound gym monkey. Or I get on the bike. It’s easy, it’s not stage fright or page fright, and I’ve seen off both of those backstage bullies. When I say seen off, I mean I’ve dodged a couple of bullets. On an empty stage you’re an easy target but you either leg it to the dressing room or stand your ground, open your mouth and say the words. Any words. Until the paralysis passes.
The blank page is different. It stares back at you. Daring you to write. Inviting you to fail. Such is the crippling fear you’ll do anything but write. Why don’t writers look out of the window in the morning? Because they’ll have nothing to do in the afternoon. Displacement activity takes up a major part of the writing process. Live with a writer and you’ll have the cleanest house in the neighbourhood. But somehow, you always contrive to start. So why can’t I get on this bike?
I was once lucky enough to meet the Irish poet Desmond O’Grady in a pub in Kinsale . In a piece of Irish synergy we discovered we both had reviews in a magazine feature on the Dublin Fringe festival. Surfing a tide of Guinness he regaled us with dropped names and tall tales all of which turned out to be true. He must have been in his seventies and he told me he had written every day of his working life. The key, he told me, was to start, to make a mark, something, anything. To me, anything sounded like a rewrite in-waiting. He slid a piece of paper from his tweed jacket and handed it to me. ‘Fresh from the fountain.’ It was a poem with the title, Tipperary. I read the first line, It’s a long way to Tipperary’ I paused and read the second line, ‘It’s a long way to go.’ I stopped and looked at Desmond. He was already ahead of me. ‘ Yes, that’s just what I thought, I’m going to end up writing the whole damn song’ But he didn’t. He turned the bones of an old music hall song into a poetic metaphor of dreams, disappointment and elusive promise. It’s a long way to Tipperary. And our hearts lie there.’
Pen to paper, foot to pedal, make a start. Anything, anywhere. It works, although I have to confess I have been guilty of writing a first draft that consisted entirely of the back catalogue of Bruce Springsteen.. There were no takers. You can’t be The Boss, and equally on the bike you can’t be The Cannibal – Eddie Merckx. But you can be the bike, and you can be the page.
But sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes the thing is there. The thing that doesn’t exist. The thing that’s slouched on my bike now, over the top tube, a sinewy arm reaching down to the quick release lever on my front wheel, and slowly giving it a squeeze, precipitating my failure. ‘You can’t ride this bike. You never could.’ But the thing doesn’t exist. It’s just me and the bike and I can’t ride it, let alone be it. But I have. I have been the bike.