For once I am going to query Philip Larkin, the gloomy poet whom I like a lot.
"Days spent hunting pig, or holding a garden party," wrote Larkin, "advance on death equally slowly." What I want to know is how he knew. Larkin was a bespectacled librarian (anyone for tautology?), and as a bespectacled librarian he didn't go in for pig hunting or garden parties.
He did, admittedly, once run over a hedgehog with a lawnmower (I am not making this up) but it was an accident so it doesn't qualify as hunting. Nor does it qualify as a garden party, not for the hedgehog, which was dismembered, nor for the poet, who was distraught. So distraught indeed that he wrote a poem about it, which is how I know that it happened.
In one sense, of course, Larkin was right. The clock ticks at a steady rate regardless of whether you're having sex or wiping a hedgehog off the crankshaft. But the clock is not the last word in timekeeping. As Einstein famously observed, and as I have just been reminded because of my knee, time is relative.
Following a recent operation the surgeon told me that the best thing I could do to return my knee to kneehood was cycling. "Ha ha," I said. "For one thing I live on a road that Ed Hillary used for training. Cycling down it would be unwise, cycling up it unthinkable. And for another thing I am not going to acquire, at the age of 55, a pair of clinging lycra shorts with a little pad sewn into the back seam. A few backsides look good in them. Most don't. And mine is, or would be, among the most."
So I sought a second opinion. The physiotherapist told me that the best thing I could do to return my knee to kneehood was cycling. Were I a suspicious man I'd have suspected a conspiracy. I explained about the hill and about the shorts. "Well," said the physio, "Why not get an exercycle?"
"O Mr Physio," I exclaimed, ‘I'll tell you why not. Cycling may be hard work. It may require lycra and even, in this safety-obsessed age, a helmet, but at least it takes you from A to that ever-popular destination B. An exercycle does not. It retains all the downsides of cycling while losing its only upside."
Indeed it would be easy to see the exercycle as the apotheosis of 21st-century society. Its appeal is founded on vanity. It is supposed to burn the fat that our greed and indolence have generated. And by keeping the rider firmly at home it obviates any need to engage with the actual sapid world.
"Have you not seen," I said, "the terrifying informercials for exercycles and a thousand other forms of exercise equipment, all of which feature a grinning bimbette in a leotard, pedalling nowhere in a carpeted room while watching a cooking show on a 98-inch television? Sterility, vanity, domesticity, safety, timorousness, the whole gamut of qualities of a ghastly age.
"So no, Mr Physio," I said, "I am not going to get an exercycle."
Trade Me was awash with exercycles. The comments were telling. Most were "as new", or "barely used".
One said, "never taken out of the box". A present, I guess, that had been meant, and taken, as an insult. I picked one up for a song. "I think we used it once," said the former owner.
It had a little computer purporting to tell me the calories I'd burned, my pulse rate, the distance I hadn't travelled and the number of inches that hadn't tumbled from my waistline. I slit its little wires. Then I climbed aboard and started pedalling.
And though I haven't cycled in decades I immediately recognised the burn in the quadriceps, and the rich chafing of the inner thigh. But what I hadn't remembered was the instantaneous onset of catatonic boredom. I hadn't remembered it because every previous time I'd ridden a bicycle I'd been going somewhere.
I pedalled for about 15 minutes, looked at my watch and found I'd been pedalling for three. And I haven't got back on the bike since. I'm going to put it on Trade Me. "Two previous owners," the ad will say. "Used twice." And when I've sold it I'm going pig hunting.
- The Dominion Post