Fat Man On A Bicycle, Tom Vernon (1982)

A gastronome’s entertaining progress through France

Fontana 0006365299 paperback 350pp £1.95

There is a view of cycling in Britain that considers the period between the launch of the ‘modern’ Ford Anglia in 1959 and the imposition of the London’s congestion charge in 2003 as the wilderness years. Enthusiasm for cycle sport waned, journey numbers by bicycle tumbled and volume cycle manufacture came to an end.

But tempting as simplistic meta-history can be, the truth is that cycling never went away – from our roads or from mainstream culture. How otherwise would Tom Vernon have enjoyed such a long run of successful books and broadcasts?

As the 1970s rolled to a close and Vernon approached 40, he was a successful BBC Radio Four presenter and was obese. Commuting about London on two wheels, he conceived the idea of cycling from his home in Muswell Hill to the Mediterranean. As he tells it, the trip was almost certainly devised as an opportunity to make a radio programme. And that is what he did, with his producer following his progress through France by car.

The radio programme was a success, so a year later he wrote up the trip – this book was the result. He is a very capable writer, with an style that makes his 25 days awheel in the summer of 1979 a page-turning pleasure. It was enough of a success for there to be a bookshelf of follow ups. By 1983 there were four ‘Fat Man’ books. Then between 1987 and 1996 he made seven series of ‘Fat Man’ television programs, most of which were accompanied by a further book – this time, travel guides rather than narrative accounts. It is a catalogue that gives him a fair claim to be the most successful cycle-touring writer in the English language.

The reason for his success is simple – he is an easy-goiing pleasure to read. He paints himself in absurdist terms – his 19 stone frame clearly is an awful lot to self-propel for nearly 1,000 miles. But the riding really is a device for a gently observed snapshot of our nearest neighbour. His slow progress makes for lots of encounters with ‘characters’. The sprinkling of guide-book history is deft. But more than anything else, he is amusing, in a kindly, rather than a rolling-on-the-floor sort of way.

He wonders at one point whether the France of bustling village markets will survive another quarter century and the simple answer is, yes it has. Indeed, it is surprising that the country he describes, taking in Dieppe, Paris, Le Puy and Montpellier, would appear to be very like the one you might find today if you followed in his footsteps.

Perhaps the France that stands out to a cultured Englishman of letters is enduring, perhaps it is because he is at his most lyrical when describing food. Here he is somewhere near Mende.

“There was a rutted lane leading into a wooden patch along the Esclancide, which was no more than a brook, running crystal over brown pebbles. There we lunched off picnic things including a fromage de montagne with holes like Gruyère and a pleasant dairy flavour, and Listel rosé – light, tart and delicious,. It went straight to the legs: at the first hill of the afternoon I was passed by two cyclists – first a boy racing away with a speed that I had just finished ascribing to youthful vigour when an old man with grey hair and gold-rimmed spectacles whirred past after him.”

To suggest that he has definitivly captured the eternal France is a claim too far. What he has without question got, though,is a roll-along way with words that is as fresh today as it was 30 years ago.

TD Nov 11

Tom Vernon died in 2013. As his obituary in The Guardian makes clear, there was a lot more to the man than the pedalling fatty.

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