Trial By Tandem, Alan McCulloch (1951)

A nicely observed account of an artistic Austrialian couples’ tour through France and Italy a couple of years after the second world war

George Allen & Unwin 236pp

The author and his wife, Ellen are killing time between jobs. At this point, in late 1940s, he is old enough (probably about 40), to have progressed from life working in a bank, to that of a professional art critic. Later in life, the McCulloch’s evolve to become some of the most eminent figures in art curation in their native Australia.

In Paris for a conference, the couple buy a tandem on a whim and set off on an Odyssey through France and Italy. This is a book about cycling only in the sense that the tandem exists and a generally unwelcome gooseberry in their relationship. Indeed, McCulloch insists that despite her time pedalling behind him, his wife never properly learns to ride a bicycle. Certainly, the experience of cycling and travelling on a two wheels take up very little of the story.

Their journey, and his writing style, are gentle – although the prose is shot through with perceptive observation and taut phrasing. “A curious feature of bicycle travel is that, although you are whistling along, utterly unprotected, through the atmosphere as it were, you have a strong sense of privacy, the feeling of being unobserved. Consequently one soon develops a lack of self consciousness about clothes, and quickly sheds all items superfluous to the job in hand”. Thus, McCulloch introduces a tableaux in which he is barred Monte Carlo’s because he resembled a tramp.

They stay at rowdy youth hostels, enjoy the hospitality of a Vicomte, search for signs that Van Gogh is remembered in Arles and eventually return the tandem to the dealer from whom they procured it in Paris. The book has a witty observation about all of them – even his wife being with child by the end of their travels.

Throughout, McCulloch brings the sensibilities of an artist to his account, and the book is illustrated with pen and ink drawings that he did en route. It is a charming book, and a record of post-war Europe that seems a million miles from France and Italy today. There are moments when he appears to be spinning out his tales, to fill the pages and there is not much in the way of narrative drive to keep the pages turning. But the book has considerable charm and provides a more than pleasant means to pass away an afternoon.

PS July 2008

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