An Encounter with Paul Fournel
26.07.11 by Jontyponty
[Note: This all happened a long time ago. Paul Fournel might not have said the things I’ve said he said in quite the way I’ve said he said them. I believe I caught the gist, but that’s all I can say with confidence.]
I was leaning on a grit-bin outside the Natural History Museum trying to think of intelligent questions to ask when Monkey rolled up, pristine CitySprint bag over his shoulder. He moaned about the usual things: the lack of work; the three jobs he had on which were going nowhere near each other; the weather, before asking what I was doing there.
I was about to meet Paul Fournel, cultural commentator, keen cyclist, and author of Need for the Bike: the best work of cyclo-philosophy there is. He was working as the French Cultural attaché in London, so I emailed him to ask if he’d see me. He invited me to come and see him on his last day, his last hour, of work as cultural attaché, to talk about cycling, literature, and London.
The lift was out of order in 23 Cromwell Road, so I walked up the stairs. ‘So you’re a cyclist who can climb stairs as well?’ he said, as my head emerged from above the bannisters. ‘It’s one of the benefits of couriering’, I replied, ‘a cross-training workout. Other activities include opening doors and writing out dockets.’
His office was spartan, apart from a book shelf, desk and computer. I spotted books by William Boyd, biographies of cyclists, as well as Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. It seemed appropriate for a discussion about couriering. Fournel was packing up. I told him I wanted to meet a real writer, especially one interested in cycling. He asked me about couriering. Do you work for yourself? We talked about the logistics of the job, about the employment regulations, about the tyranny of the courier’s faux self-employed status. Also about cabbies, about knowing London. Courier stories are like fishing stories, and are told not to inform the listener but, as in the confessional, to unburden the teller. So I won’t recount those tales here.
I asked Fournel what he thought of London cycling culture. Did he ride here? Had he found a peloton to join? He rode laps round Richmond Park, he said. He’d just got back from France. Wistfully, he described the hills he’d conquered on that last trip.
We talked about Boris bikes and the Parisian Velibs: the people’s bikes. ‘There are problems’, he said, ‘it’s amazing how people vandalize or steal these bikes – they throw them into the Seine, hang them in trees. I’ve even heard of one that appeared in Australia. Imagine the effort involved in that, the cost of shipping it over and so on. It’s very strange. So now I make sure I check the bikes very carefully before I take them out of the cradle. I check the tyres are pumped, that the gears and brakes work and so on.’
I asked him about his own bikes. He’d recently bought a Condor with a titanium frame, which he loved because his knees were getting old and it ran a tiny gear for attacking the hills: ‘it’s a beautiful bike, and cheap compared to most others. I don’t like carbon fibre, it is too unforgiving, it feels like you are riding an arrow, you know?’
He asked me if I rode a single speed. He told me that not many people ride fixed gear in Paris, because of the hills. ‘But they do in San Francisco’ I said. ‘Yes, but in San Francisco they don’t ride up the hills. I lived there for a while. What they do is grab on to cars or trams and get pulled up the hills, then just coast down. They probably cycle less than couriers in any other country. But it is very dangerous, incredibly dangerous.’
I asked him about ‘Need for the Bike’ [I remember this bit more clearly, hence the dialogue. Also it helps break up an otherwise monotonous piece]:
JD: I see your book as part of a canon, a subgenre, of books about the interaction between mind and body, then body and bicycle. Why do you think the bike lends itself to this kind of literary treatment so readily? [a poncy question, but valid I think].
PF: Not just literature but all media: the newspaper of course, which in fact sponsored the early Tours de France, and largely invented bicycle racing, and then the radio and now the TV. The bicycle, of course, is a good place to think.
JD: Yes, in your book you describe the ‘windy silence of the saddle’.
PF: Precisely, I think that is true. But also, in bicycle racing at any rate, there are the villains and the heroes, the day-by-day narrative of a race is very good for a reader, is very easy to digest. I think these are themes and ideas that are always attractive to literature. Tim Krabbé’s ‘The Rider’, which I think is the finest evocation of a bicycle race ever written, is very good on that, the drama of the road and the stories that unfold around the personalities of a race.
JD: But your book is part of a canon of cycling literature which is perhaps more thoughtful than cyclist-autobiographies and books about the history of the bicycle race. There is a great tradition, in France, Holland and Ireland, of combining philosophical speculation with descriptions of cycling. Why is the bicycle such a potent vehicle for philosophical speculation?
PF: I think because it’s so simple, but it remains a mystery. You know I ride in a bunch in Paris, a group of friends. And one of them is a physicist at the Sorbonne, one of the 12 top physicists in the world or something. And even he cannot explain it, cannot tell me how a bike and rider stay upright. It has something to do with the wobble of the front wheel, the way it moves from side to side, but really we don’t know. I think this is one reason it is so attractive to writers: it is an enigma that can be pondered for ever. But teaching people to ride is also an amazing thing, something they will never forget. I’ve taught many people to ride, or to love to ride: girlfriends, friends, children, and I always love the fact that they will remember that forever, both the event and the action which is taught.
Fournel needs to finish packing now, so I get up, we shake hands. ‘Come visit me in Paris’ he says. ‘I’d love to’, I say. I think I will. ‘We can ride the Velibs together, I’ll show you the city’ he concludes, and leads me to the stairs.
In my copy of ‘Need for the Bike’ he’s written:
For Jon Day,
‘Le cycliste des rues de Londres’, these memories of the countryside.