Swapping horses for bicycles...

And now for something completely different...

Fellow London cyclist and blogger Kim Forrester (@Kimbofo) spends her time writing about bikes and books; two of my favourite things!  Her London Cycling Diaries are always worth a browse, and contain some wonderful photographs, whilst her Reading Matters blog often has me adding more material to my "Must Read" list.

This month on Reading Matters Kim is hosting Australian Literature Month -  a series of posts looking at some of the best books, poems and writing to come out of the antipodes, and encouraging others to share their favourite Aussie reads.  So here's mine... (you're probably wondering why I'm writing about Aussie literature on my cycling blog, but read on and all will become clear!)

Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson is arguably Australia's most famous literary export.  Born in 1864 in New South Wales, his iconic bush poetry ("The Man From Snowy River", "Waltzing Matilda") is taught to every school child in the land, whilst his image even adorns the Australian $10 note.  Whilst certainly a popularist writer, his use of common Australian parlance from the period has endeared himself to subsequent generations, whilst helping to capture the voice of the working people of the bush.

Mulga Bill's Bicycle by Banjo Paterson is my one of my favourite poems, and one of my favourite pieces of Australian literature.  It tells the tale of Mulga Bill, a fictitious cattleman, who purchases a bicycle and - based on his own macho pride - assumes that because he can ride horses and cattle ("there's none can ride like me") that he'll be able to ride a bicycle with ease, too.  The resulting calamity is the basis for the poem, and the vivid description of careering out of control never fail to make me smile, but there is a more serious subject here too.

The Cordillo Sheep Shearers of South Australia, from a post about cycling in Australia on Copenhagenize

Australia is a drought and flood country, and in the droughts of the late 1890s steersmen all across Australia took up cycling to get around as they could no longer afford to feed their horses.  It's also a vast nation, ill-suited to walking - if you wanted to get around a cattle station in the past you needed a horse or a bike to cover the distances.  The introduction of the bicycle brought genuine social mobility to a whole new class of people throughout Australia.  The revolutionary effects of the humble bicycle there are difficult to imagine now in the modern country which is bound by its compulsory helmet laws, very low ridership levels and urban sprawl.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining.  The small mining town of Eaglehawk in Victoria is named in the poem as the home of Mulga Bill, and some far-sited locals have built a Mulga Bill Bicycle trail; a scenic ride taking in the mines and historic sites of the town.  I like the idea of a poem about a bicycle converging with people actually going for a ride in reality; although hopefully with less dramatic consequences for those who chose to do so!

Normal service will soon be resumed on ibikelondon blog, but in the meantime do read this poem out loud for the best results, and I hope you enjoy it:

Mulga Bill's Bicycle

’Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, “Excuse me, can you ride?”

“See here, young man,” said Mulga Bill, “from Walgett to the sea,
From Conroy’s Gap to Castlereagh, there’s none can ride like me.
I’m good all round at everything as everybody knows,
Although I’m not the one to talk – I hate a man that blows.
But riding is my special gift, my chiefest, sole delight;
Just ask a wild duck can it swim, a wildcat can it fight.
There’s nothing clothed in hair or hide, or built of flesh or steel,
There’s nothing walks or jumps, or runs, on axle, hoof, or wheel,
But what I’ll sit, while hide will hold and girths and straps are tight:
I’ll ride this here two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight.”

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that sought his own abode,
That perched above Dead Man’s Creek, beside the mountain road.
He turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray,
But ‘ere he’d gone a dozen yards it bolted clean away.
It left the track, and through the trees, just like a silver steak,
It whistled down the awful slope towards the Dead Man’s Creek.

It shaved a stump by half an inch, it dodged a big white-box:
The very wallaroos in fright went scrambling up the rocks,
The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground,
As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.
It struck a stone and gave a spring that cleared a fallen tree,
It raced beside a precipice as close as close could be;
And then as Mulga Bill let out one last despairing shriek
It made a leap of twenty feet into the Dean Man’s Creek.

‘Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that slowly swam ashore:
He said, "I’ve had some narrer shaves and lively rides before;
I’ve rode a wild bull round a yard to win a five-pound bet,
But this was the most awful ride that I’ve encountered yet.
I’ll give that two-wheeled outlaw best; it’s shaken all my nerve
To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.
It’s safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek, we’ll leave it lying still;
A horse’s back is good enough henceforth for Mulga Bill."

Banjo Paterson, 1896

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