Icon with wheel off

Framing Production
October 18, 2002

The bicycle is one of the simplest machines still in widespread use, though it occupies an increasingly ambivalent role as an icon in domestic and contemporary consumer culture. It belongs to both the past and the future. In Orwell's famous evocation of a mythical age of lost innocence, "England was a place where elderly maidens cycled through the mist, unharmed, to Holy Communion". Yet William Gibson, doyen of the modern futurist novel, and the writer who first coined the term "cyberspace", has on more than one occasion chosen to make a cycle courier the emblematic representative of the postmodern future. In his seminal novel Virtual Light , a young woman cycle courier is at the political centre of the entropic world of 21st-century West Coast America. The bicycle is dead, long live the bicycle.

Paul Rosen's book takes us on an extended factory tour throughout the long century of British cycle manufacturing, from the foundation of the Raleigh company in 1888, to the public auction of that same company's equipment when it abandoned production in 1999. There were many other manufacturers along the way, but the story of Raleigh dominates the book. Unfortunately, the reader has to struggle through a forest of incompatible discourses - industrial and oral history, social construction of technology debates, cultural studies and even games theory - in order to unearth the principal themes and findings of what reads like an only partly digested PhD thesis.

Part of the story is a familiar one: British entrepreneurs and industrial inventors develop a popular version of a clumsy but remarkable invention, and, in the age of Empire, achieve manufacturing dominance throughout the world - and then lose it. The high point of cycle manufacturing in Britain came at the end of the 1950s, when Raleigh produced over 1 million bicycles for the domestic market alone. The film version of Alan Sillitoe's 1958 novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning , is full of images of Raleigh workers debouching from the factory gates in great swarms of bikes, as one can still see in China today. Then came the car, and, within a decade or so, the bicycle was consigned to the dustbin, or canal bottom, of history.

In the 1970s, in response to the prospect of unavoidable decline, Raleigh targeted the children's market with bikes such as the Chopper and the Activator - poorly built, uncomfortable to ride and destined for the junkyard within months rather than years. Rosen sees this, rightly, as the greatest error of all - the promotion of the bicycle as a toy or leisure item, rather than as a legitimate form of transport, a means of getting from A to B, cheaply, conveniently and healthily. In a bid to fight off competition, selected cycle shops were inveigled into "approved retailer" deals, while others were left to languish and close. The transformation of the cycle shop from an artisanal, skilled showroom and workplace to an unskilled retail outlet with no backup service or ability to undertake repairs meant that customers felt cheated, or began to accept that the bicycle was just another throwaway consumer object like everything else.

Then came the mountain bike. Developed as part of Marin County post-hippie culture (an epicentre of post-scarcity capitalism), the mountain bike, like the four-wheel drive, captured the zeitgeist with its promise of open-air freedom and off-road machismo. However, many now regard its success as a Pyrrhic victory, for while it has increased the popularity of cycling among certain demographic groups or sub-cultures, it has alienated many non-cyclists, who feel intimidated by its kerb-hopping, pavement-racing capabilities.

From its early success as a symbol of working-class (and feminist) mobility and insouciance - though later on it developed, paradoxically, into a symbol of working-class austerity and regulation, notably in its use by postal workers, police officers, meter readers and other members of the uniformed working class - the bicycle has become a much more socially ambivalent artefact and form of travel. It is now as popular among anti-globalisation activists as it is among City brokers who like to get dirty at weekends. While cycle sales continue to boom in Britain, the daily use of the bicycle as a bona fide form of travel continues to decline (down 2 per cent in 2001 from the previous year). One of Rosen's few inklings of hope that this might be reversed is in his, too-brief, description of the relationship between bicycle innovation and the continuing vitality of alternative technology movements and cultures.

The last pages of Rosen's book tell a typically British and deeply unheroic story of industrial decline. It is a story of poor management, failure to innovate, failure to understand social and demographic change, and it ends in cynical takeovers, asset-stripping, company liquidations, fire sales and auctions. Rosen's book has all the proper ingredients for a penetrating study of one of the key forces for social change in 20th-century British life. Unfortunately, poor structuring of the material, and a very uneven register of narrative style, has produced a book that is worthy but unlikely to be widely read, and that is a great pity.

Ken Worpole's most recent book, a study of open-air planning, architecture and culture in 20th-century Europe, Here Comes the Sun , is published by Reaktion Books.

Framing Production: Technology, Culture, and Change in the British Bicycle Industry

Author - Paul Rosen
ISBN - 0 262 18225 4
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 224

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