Collected pieces of journalism written between 1908 and 1927 by one of the most important cycling writers of his time
J M Dent Sexto 192pp
Kuklos was the pen name of W Fitzwater Wray, who contributed a weekly ‘Cycling Notes’ column to London’s Daily News newspaper from the opening years of the twentieth century until the paper’s closure in 1930.
Collected in this volume are 21 pieces varying in length from 1,500 to 6,000 words – most are reworked newspaper columns, four were written specially for this book.
The pieces are quite unlike anything appearing in national newspapers today – although they have some common features with other newspaper columnists of the pre-television era. The column that George Orwell wrote in Tribune from 1943 bears some similarity to Kuklos’ style, for example.
Each takes as its starting point experiences from the writer’s life, rather than the ‘newsworthy’ events. In this collection then, is a piece on the moral quality of different winds, and a celebration of a stop in the Cotswolds enforced by a puncture and the difficulties of cycling at night with a blackout in force. He has a fine descriptive flourish and deep stock of poems from which he quotes. Most important, though is his fascination with the nature of cycling experience. The light he shines on our shared enjoyment is as fresh today as when it was written.
It is worth seeking out as an entertainment – his style is engaging and he has an enriching stock of cultural references. The penultimate piece, however, has some potential importance in the development of the idea of cycling.
‘Of Wriggling’ starts as a rebuke to John Ruskin, who was apparently not keen on cyclists nor their machines. The thrust of Wray’s argument is that there is an intrinsic goodness and value in cycling – indeed he sets out 39 numbered reasons why cycling will endure and increase in importance to humanity. To get to this point he traces the history of cycling up to the mid-1920s. In this well-known trajectory, cycling was initially a craze among the athletic, wealthy men, before becoming something more like a mass movement during the 1890s.
Cars, the First World War, and ossifying bicycle designs had significantly diffused cycling’s modishness by the mid 1920s. Wray notes that the Cyclists Touring Club’s membership peaked at over 60,000 in 1899. “The first decade of the twentieth century saw the bicycle selling in huge quantities, but almost exclusively as a vehicle of utilitarian necessity…the CTC lost 40,000 members in ten years”. By 1918, CTC membership stood at 8,500, but by 1927 was back up to 25,000 (in 2010 the CTC exceeded its Victorian high water mark for the first time).
Wray’s identification of an enduring, perhaps eternal, value in the bicycle is an important early statement of this idea. Indeed, his case is no less persuasive nearly 90 years after it was written. The importance of this work, however, is that as early at 1927 the sense that cycling was an exceptional product industrialisation was already burning bright.
This is a notion although rarely articulated – is the unsaid belief that binds together the freemasonary of cyclists. Wray’s early identification of this is sufficient to place him in the Parthenon of important cycling writers – happily he provides much else beside to amuse and enlighten.
TD Sep 10