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.


We need a cycling hero – Bicycle Repair Man – Classic Monty Python

A small favour prompted me to revisit this classic Monty Python sketch.

I usually enjoy playing at Bicycle Repair Man, the opportunity to give someone back their cycling through a small tweak or adjustment or fitting a spare that I just happen to have in the shed. Last week it was a tweak to brakes and gears and my colleague was off.

However while I am happily tweaking other people’s bikes I am deeply in need of a bit of BRM magic myself. How would our hero have coped with the complexity and diversity of modern bikes? I have spent absolutely hours going nowhere in the last few weeks on just one bike while it holds up painful decisions on other machines.

Mountain bike converted to roadThe main problem is my clunker, the work bike that I actually do most of my miles on. It is a carefully crafted beast because it combines lots of thrown together parts that create a bike that looks really ugly but actually has exactly what I need. With a good layer of dirt and grease on top it is the machine nobody wants to steal, although I do get looks on the train that are almost as dirty as the bike. But it can do almost anything from the daily commute to low level mountain biking in all weathers.

Each incarnation has had a rigid MTB frame (currently a Giant Granite) and fat sturdy puncture-proof tyres from Schwalbe (Marathon Plus) which I ride until something falls apart. The main investment is the rear wheel where I use good quality, otherwise everything else is where I do my experiments, bodging together all sorts of combinations. I have learnt so much passing these bits from frame to frame over the years I reckon I can make most things work.

However this winter played hell with the machinery and in the last few weeks everything decided to pack up at once. The chain and sprockets finally got to the point where I was selecting about 3 gears from 24 and the bottom bracket was making ominous noises.

I spent hours in the shed trying to combine every set of chainrings and cranks I had into something that would work but there’s not a lot of point when the teeth barely exist.

Got that sorted eventually (spent money – hate that) but a week later the bottom bracket just seized with some suitably horrible crunching, fortunately just a short distance from home. I was about to start replacing that when I noticed a crack in the frame, so it has finally bit the dust, not bad for a machine of unknown history found abandoned in a Reading park several years ago.

New frame then.

Cyclo BrusselsOff to Cyclo, the well thought of bike recycler in Brussels that takes all the old bikes off the street and operates a social enterprise and community workshop in search of a frame.

What a treasure trove, buzzing with customers and atmosphere. Hundreds of bikes of all styles and vintages waiting to for buyers, most €100-€200. I would love to have had a few hours in there, I am sure there were some classics waiting to emerge.

Galaxy Sport TrekkingHowever it was a practical visit and I was treated to a trip down the basement where the recently arrived and unused bikes were stashed. It was actually pretty easy, within minutes we had found a scratched and battered MTB frame with a bottom bracket and headset that looked just the job.

Back to the office on the metro and then I entertained the office when I set off for the station with my burden. ECF facebook image

Nothing unusual about that in my mind, they obviously haven’t met enough bike bodgers here. Next stage of the chaos then ensued because SNCB had managed to cancel one train and tried to force two trainloads of passengers onto one half sized train. The bloke with two dirty bikes got lots of cautious looks from anyone wearing pale summer clothes although there was general good humour about my antics, climbing in and out at every stop with both machines to let people on and off.

But no matter how painful the process had been so far I now needed the satisfaction of getting the project moving properly to put the wasted hours behind me. So off to the shed.

I was actually making reasonable progress until I got to my final job of the night. Putting the wheels into the frame to set up the brakes..

I then stood back in amazement. I was going mad. The wheels had shrunk. Nothing would line up.

And slowly it dawned on me that the frame may have looked in every aspect like an MTB, but it was actually a typical continental trekking-bike set up, 700C touring wheels in a MTB set-up.

Arrggghhh – fallen into the incompatibility trap. And in this case one with a special Belgian twist. A check on the internet showed that indeed the Diamond Galaxy is a Belgian made trekker, not an MTB.

I spent last night and all my bike ride to work this morning stewing, cogitating and creating. Don’t have a plan yet – I need a sprinkle of some BRM magic.

Three types of brake possible but maybe not a full set of each, loads of wheels with umpteen gears, few of which are compatible with each other or maybe I can use it as the tourer for which it was designed and I’ll start again on a new work bike.

There is the common sense “take it back and try again” option, but that breaks just too many rules.

Thank goodness it doesn’t involve my other current maintenance hates – mainly hydraulic disk brakes. If you really want to annoy me just now put a post in a forum describing in detail a simple process that requires me to buy a kit, read about, understand and buy loads of different incompatible oils and widgets for two separate bikes and then enjoy fiddling with it for hours. Oh really? Please – wires and levers of single design – please!

Bicycle Repair Man you had it easy when bikes were black and the only thing involving pressures was a quick squeeze on the tyres. But you are still our hero and I’ll be reminded of you the next time I can tweak something that puts someone back on the road.

Meanwhile back to work…………………