Cycling Is Such Fun, Ragged Staff (late 1940s)

A series of fictional sketches and tales featuring a ‘clubman’ and his family traversing the countryside in the forties and fifties

Skeffington & Sons no price shown 131pp

Ragged Staff is the pen name of Rex Coley, a journalist on Cycling (which became Cycling Weekly) in the 1940s and 1950s. The pieces collected here are, I believe, ones that had already appeared in The Comic, and they offer an glimpse into a world that now seems impossible remote.

Each article is an entertainment – a short tale or scene from the life of a keen cyclist, who is never happier than when traversing the country on two wheels. There are endless social mishaps, with boarding house land ladies who have a low opinion of cyclists; hotel porters who insist on carrying saddle bags like the baggage of grandees; and station masters who don’t approve of means of transport that do not require the purchase of tickets.

Much of the time Ragged is accompanied by his wife, Ann, his foil and frequent debunker. On occasion, the son, and even the pet dog join them awheel.

Coley was an accomplished writer. These are simple little tales with no pretensions to literature, but Coley makes them a pleasure to read. Each is alive with incident and dialogue. In the hands of a lesser wordsmith, an account of an ill-conceived cycle ride from south east London to Nuneaton simply to return a milk bottle would be stogy fare. Coley’s deftness of touch and feel for the absurd make it a pleasure.

It is a period piece in every sense of the word. The roads are empty, the clothing woolen and the enjoyment of simple pleasures after the privations of war is palpable. Not everything rose-tinted, however. Even if there are still vicar’s wives alive who would badger passing cycle tourists into ‘blacking up’; to play Sambo in their husband’s dramatic productions (‘you merely have to act in an ignorant and absurd manner’, she advises), it is unlikely that they would be celebrated as they are here.

Nonetheless, this is book is a considerable pleasure – even for those of us for whom this era seems impossibly distant.

PS July 08

Incidentally, I would be fascinated if anyone has any further information about Coley. There are other books of his Ragged Staff pieces, I know, but any other information would be great.

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