Roads To The North, Charles S Brooks (1928)
A ride through the length of England, that sparkles in the retelling despite record rainfall
Harcourt, Brace and Co, 375pp quarto $3
This is the tale of three American chums in their middle years riding from Southampton to Northumberland. The date of their journey is unspecified, but was almost certainly 1927 – which holds the record as one of the wettest British summers ever.
Brooks doesn’t disguise the level of precipitation – so wet does ‘George’ become in York, for example, that he prays for his ruined clothes to be detained at the repairing tailors, lest he be coerced to leave his hotel room again. But one senses that Brooks had come to write an engaging book about England, and he was not going to be put off by a torrential downpour.
This he certainly manages. He brings to their venture, dashing prose, a deep knowledge of England and an enthusiasm for drawing historical and literary threads into his observations. These he leavens with the knockabout experiences of three pals well past the bloom of youth pedalling northwards through hail and highwater.
His skills as a writer are rare among those who feel compelled to write up their cycle rides. There is scarcely a paragraph without and effective epigram – “A tavern in single freedom is better than a thatched roof with an unlovely wife”, he observes, for example. “No matter how you pronounce (Cirencester) you will be corrected”, and “Heavy clouds were already answering a bugle call for a fiercer charge behind the Pennine range.”
He is interesting on the evolution of British place names and their origins and makes sometimes lengthy diversions on subjects such as Hazlitt, Shakespeare and Ibsen. Architecture, particularly medieval and ecclesiastical buildings, are also enthusiasms, to which he provides an easily digested introduction.
There is not much about the cycling itself or the experience of being on the road. Neither does the ‘state of England’ detain Brooks much. Only when he arrives in Newcastle does he notice that all is not well in Albion and depression appears to have industry in its grip. Nevertheless, his knowledge of these isles would shame most natives. Indeed, his only error that I noticed was imagining that the Black Country stretches from the west midlands to Lancashire, rather than being a specific area mostly in Staffordshire.
This is a book designed to entertain, and enlighten, rather than a work of reportage. Nonetheless, it is a rare treat for the cycling experience to be rendered by a genuine wordsmith. It was one of several cycle journeys across England that he wrote up as books – any of which, I would guess, would be worth seeking out.
Indeed, Brooks enjoyed a national reputation as a playwright, critic and author. Born in 1878, he spent his early working years in the family printing and stationary business. Thereafter, he dedicated himself to writing – particularly essays – and published a book nearly every year until his death in 1934. He lived for much of his life in Cleveland, Ohio, and was at the centre of a bohemian, and artistically adventurous group who founded the Cleveland Playhouse in 1915 – of which he served as president, from its inception until his death. Julia McCune Flory, who provides this book with its charming line-and-ink illustrations was another member of that group, as was Brooks wife, Mary Seymour Books, a noted portrait painter, who he married in 1929.
TD Jan 12