A song to be played while repairing bikes: – “Shipbuilding”.


When I am working in my bike shed there is a song that sometimes comes suddenly when the music payer shuffles the tunes, then becomes an earworm that stays with me for the rest of the day. It is a special song anyway, but I give it a little cycling twist when I am working on my bikes.

It is the beautiful and moving 1983 song “Shipbuilding”, written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer and first recorded by English singer songwriter Robert Wyatt.

On first impressions this can be taken as a song of optimism. The words talk of possibilities from a new job

A new winter coat,

And shoes for the wife

And a bicycle

On the boy’s birthday

Of course, a bicycle for the boy, who couldn’t love that idea as a symbol of hope?

However the song has a dark side. Because the “Shipbuilding” in the title is the possible return of shipbuilding and repairing to the British shipyards of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North East of England, places that had been hardest hit by recession in the 1970s and early 1980s. The rumour that there might be shipbuilding again came because Britain was sending a military task force to the Falkland Islands, a war that would be fought mostly at sea.

And it is those self-same suffering industrial areas that supplied the much of the British forces at the time. Woven through the lyrics are the pains of war,

They’ll be reopening the shipyard
And notifying the next of kin once again

So Costello had actually written a protest song that reflected the impact on the people who not valued by the Thatcher Government, but were now needed both to fight and rebuild the ships. A painful reminder of one of the most challenging periods of our not so distant past and one where I cannot help but be in sympathy with Costello’s words.

He says in interviews that he wasn’t being alarmist or morbid, but he also says they were possibly the best lyrics he ever wrote, reflecting the complexity and depth that he put into a short “pop” song. “Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls….”

I have added below Youtube links to both versions, you can enjoy the sparseness of the Robert Wyatt version or the virtuoso jazz trumpet on Costello’s own recording that for me just adds to the poignancy. (Email readers may have to visit the original blog post on http://www.idonotdespair.com for these links to work)

I sing these words out loud when I am working, if nothing else because I can. But I do have my own special version that has emerged from the bike workshop. Last year when I was making my first attempt at removing and replacing a wheel rim when the song came on and almost without thinking I replaced the words “shipbuilding” with “wheelbuilding”.

Dropouts 3And I have carried the idea ever since that this song can become a true song of hope when old areas of industrial decline get a glimmer of optimism because they are re-opening old bicycle factories to satisfy the demands of a new society.

Listen, enjoy, reflect and maybe in your bike shed you will sing of wheelbuilding too. I hope so.