Where Is Bicycle Repairman When The World needs Him?

Ian R Thorpe By Ian R Thorpe, 15th Nov 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Humour>Off Beat

A superhero whose superpower is repairing bikes? It was a sketch in a Monty Python's Flying Circus show. But forty years on is it as crazy as it sounded then?

Why We Need Bicycle Repairman

A favourite Monty Python's Flying Circus sketch of mine, though it is perhaps not one of the best remembered by most people, featured a Superhero called Bicycle Repair Man. When I have mentioned this online I have been surprised by the response, which proves either the people I socialise with have poor memories or the online community is geekier than I thought,

Bicycle Repair Man? A bike mechanic superhero? You might well ask.

Yes, well the comic premise was that in a world populated by super humans with amazing powers that enabled them to run faster than a speeding train, leap tall buildings at a single bound , fly into space at many times the speed of light and stop the bi-weekly asteroid-on-a-collision-course-with-earth by will power alone; where supershapeshifters who could turn into a tropical rainstorm and douse forest fires, turn into a fiery furnace and evaporate flood waters, fart against the wind and stop a hurricane in it’s tracks (no, sorry – that’s Johnny Fartpants from Viz comic, not a proper superhero) or do any miraculous deed that was necessary to save the world, averted catastrophe on a dally basis but had none of the practical skills needed to put up a shelf, fix a dripping tap or mend a bike.

The only things these superheroes could not do apart from spotting that the shaven headed guy who sneaked around bursting into evil laughter (“MWAHWAHAHAHAHAA, this time I shall outwit incredibly-wholesome-man and conquer the world”) and was always accompanied by an entourage of ugly henchmen and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike totty with unfeasibly large breasts was up to no good, were utterly mundane tasks like changing a light bulb or mending a fuse. In such a world an ordinary bloke who knows which end of a screwdriver does the business can be a superhero. And as it is possibly a post oil world too as everybody rides bikes, even superheroes, Monty Python Bicycle repair man sketch on YouTube

Apart from being funny in that timelessly ridiculous way of Python humour the sketch was eerily prescient, predicting the success, fame and celebrity driven world in which we now live, a world where ersatz heroes are ten a penny and celebrities even cheaper, where scientists talk of transhumanism, the merging of humans and machines to make indestructible superbeings; in which we even have celebrity house cleaners, celebrity tightwads and celebrity slappers but decent plumbers, electricians, joiners and blokes who can mend bikes are almost impossible to find.

Back when the sketch was first broadcast at a time when the world seemed to be surfing towards a Utopian future on a tsunami of technological progress – stone me, that is such a brilliant phrase I felt a little thrill as I typed it, I think I’ll do it again - a time when the world seemed to be surfing towards a Utopian future on a tsunami of technological progress… oooh, a tingle ran up my leg! …; when we all looked forward to zooming around in our personal hovercraft or popping down to the wine shop on a rocket powered space hopper, bicycles were curious, anachronistic devices. Now of course they are increasingly essential transport.

As we live in a world that enables us to sign up for a college decree in pole dancing or growing cannabis (I'm not kidding) you might well be expecting to learn it is now possible to take a University degree course in mending bikes. Ha! Of course not, that would be silly. The highest academic qualification available for wannabe bike repairmen here in Britain is the vocational City and Guilds diploma. People are queueing to enrol on special Bicycle Repairman courses however, about 40 are graduating as qualified bike mechanics each month.

Now if you are of my generation you will remember the traditional ways to become a competent bike mechanic were :
(a) Get a bike for doing well in your school exams, ride it for a bit, decide to make it go faster and dismantle it and teach yourself how to put it back together before your dad came home and whacked you.

(b) inherit a bike from an elder sibling or cousin in which case your bike was a family heirloom (a bit like cars in our family) and on finding it was a complete wreck and unsafe to ride but you dare not complain because it was a family heirloom so you saved your pocket money, bought some tools and taught yourself to fix it OR;

(c) having failed your exams or been born into a family so poor you only got a Mars bar for getting straight top grades you could head down to the dump with your Dad’s spanners and glean bits off discarded bikes to build your own.

In case (a) if you failed to reassemble the parts into a rideable bike your Dad beat the crap out of you: if you managed to put the bike back together successfully you were a qualified bike mechanic who could adjust the chain, oil the crank and tweak the brakes.

(Picture: Superman, source Cycling magazine - creative commons)

Bicycle Repain Man To The Rescue

You were now ready to move to advanced level, fitting your own Sturmey Archer three speed gear system. The great secret of all mechanical knowledge was yours; if it doesn’t work how it should, spray some WD40 on it, if that does not make it work, hit it with a hammer.

I have to admit to my eternal shame I won a scholarship to an elite school and received a shiny new Phillips Phantom five for my efforts, obnoxious little swot that I was.

If you were from a poor home and took path (c) to bike ownership and ended up with a rideable bike your Dad probably beat the crap out of you and sold your bike for beer money.

Those whose bikes came to them by route (b) tended to have unhappy childhoods as they dared not do skids, wheelies or ride through puddles. "That bike has to be passed on to somebody else so don’t go ruining it, now think on,” these kids were told whenever they looked to be in danger of having fun.

Aristotle said “What we have to do we learn by doing.” Ian R. Thorpe says “There is nothing that cannot be learned by hitting things with a hammer.”

At my school, being posh boys from wealthy homes or obnoxious little swots we found a more oblique route to becoming bicycle repairman. There was a fad for dirt track bikes, off roaders. Now the wages of sin when the sin involved riding an expensive bike such as a Phillips Phantom five, Raleigh Blue Streak or Claude Butler Olympian (the Ferrari of bikes) through mud, across fields and on sheep tracks was being grounded with loss of pocket money for a year.

The only way to get a dirt track bike then was to get hold of some tools and head for the dump. Our dirt track bikes would have horrified a health and safety expert but fortunately that sub species (homo sapiens riskus - man who knows the risk) had not evolved so long ago.

My self education in mechanical engineering coupled with a few workshop manuals stood me in good stead through all my early driving career from the 1952 Morris Minor I bought for £12 in 1968 to the point where I became so affluent I only needed to get my hands dirty for fun. I rebuilt engines and transmissions, set hydraulic brakes, fitted shock absorbers, everything without so much as an hour of formal training let alone a university degree in mechanics or any superpowers. And I’m not dead, in fact I still have all my fingers.

I was not alone of course, millions of people all around the world taught themselves: not just to fix bikes and but to install electrics, repair radios and tvs, build furniture, plumb in a shower, lay bricks and spread plaster, a thousand valuable skills. Now an authoritarian bureaucracy called The Health And Safety Executive exists to inhibit this natural human urge to learn to do things by having a go. People in the UK who work in government departments as manual workers are not allowed to climb a ladder or push a wheelbarrow unless they have had formal training. Again, I'm not kidding. We will be insisting people are trained before we let them wipe their backsides next.

The man who campaigned to persuade the City and Guilds vocational education group the bicycle repairs course should be run is adamant that cycling is the future; he wants bike mechanics to be made a proper profession like accountancy, electronics engineering, burger flipping and selling dodgy investment packages. It’s only a matter of time before there are demands that bike mechanic be made a degree entry career. That would be so sad, is there no human endeavor left that enables people to experience the satisfaction of discovering without formal and strictly controlled training including a module in the Health And Safety related aspects of the activity.

We need to preserve these valuable skills before they are lost to us forever, subsumed under a great steaming pile of bureaucracy. In spite of what we are told computers will never be able to think or make decisions they way a human can nor will they ever be able to repair a bike.

(Picture: still from Bicycle Repairman, Michael Palin in overalls, Terry jones and John Cleese. Source: Public domain via http://www.tatp.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/bicycle_repairman.jpg

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Dumbing Down, Education, Humor, Humour, Monty Python, Monty Pythons Flying Circus, Skills, Superhero

Meet the author

author avatar Ian R Thorpe
Born Manchester UK, 1948. varied early career from clerk via construction site worker and street trader to I T consultant. Performance poet, broadcaster, fiction writer and essayist on many topics.

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author avatar MarilynDavisatTIERS
18th Nov 2013 (#)

Good morning, Ian; from your article: "In such a world an ordinary bloke who knows which end of a screwdriver does the business can be a superhero."

My father always told me that I would have to have respect for those individuals who would facilitate my life - like trash collectors and mechanics - they would keep my world orderly and since I was much like him, and was not mechanically inclined, I have tried to follow that advice. Thanks for the reminder - always love Python. ~Marilyn

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author avatar Ian R Thorpe
18th Nov 2013 (#)

Marilyn,
Looking back on Python now (my daughter asked be for a box set a couple of years ago so I gt to borrow the DVDs from her) it's amusing to not how much good sense there is hidden among all that craziness :-)

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