Cycling for Safety: A Memoir

Ian Richards

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On the afternoon of Monday 9 December, 1968, aged just ten, I rode my bike along a metalled road beside two other boys for a take. Then again--not looking at the camera--till we heard the yell 'cut' ringing in the farmland around us. And then again--but there were problems with the light. And we boys, we three were mystified. Wasn't riding a bike like...riding a bike? But we were thrilled at all the attention. Even when standing about in the long grass, waiting for the sun on our short-sleeved shirts, flannel shorts and jandals. With our faces freckling. With the hair clipped tight to the sides of our heads and just a little long on top, like the young Prince Charles. Like the contents of our parents' nightly prayers: 'Oh...please, let my little boy grow to be just, just like the young Prince Charles!' Visiting this and doing that in black and white, the Prince of Wales! with his tight hair and his earnest manner and his proud, round vowels. So there we were, because of the resemblance. Out in the Manawatu: three miniature Prince Charleses cycling down a farmer's track on ruts and broken stones. And twice more, to get it looking just, just right.

When I'd arrived at Winchester Primary School on that same Monday morning, it was already a rumour. Town and Around will make a film of our class! A movie star's going to visit and meet us! We talked it to death during morning play. And afterwards, our teacher, Mrs Truscott, said: 'Go outside and get your bikes.' So a bicycle inspection was all and...yes...two traffic cops, there they were--standing by the basketball court at the front of the school. Going among us, those intimidating uniforms, inspecting our bikes. But over by the dental clinic, a man and a woman, talking to Mrs Truscott. And Mrs Truscott told us to get on our bikes and ride in a circle and then dismount. Those rumours back in our heads. I rode, but I dismounted strangely--as always. Brought my right leg up near my chin and sneaked it over the crossbar, hopped off sideways. My own way, me--never mind swinging that leg wide and back and round, filling up the air with balance...afraid I'd fall flat. A cop walked up and showed me how. So I did it right, safely. Not from courage, nor fear, nor even conformity, but out of greed.

Because if we were on show, there must be a reward. Mrs Truscott's pet was me. Because if anyone was going to be chosen for anything...I was sure it was me. I couldn't dismount, but I was sure. At home and at school for ten happy years, I'd had more than enough love to convince me that I was special, and I had just enough talent to maintain the illusion. I'd never had to think about safety in my life--I'd always been safe, with everyone everywhere. I was...me. I was all ego, the sort of ego you pay for later--but not today. Today, I was going to be chosen.

For a boy, his bike: that's the first real thing you own. Not the home, the clothes, the toys you have to share (we had an arsenal of guns among the neighbourhood kids--why didn't we all grow up to be serial killers?). My bike. It replaced the tricycle I used to ride to school, a mile up Manawatu Street. Oh, I'd cried when I left it in a stranger's driveway and a car drove over the top (within ten minutes my father had bent it back into shape in the garage). I'd cried when one day a big boy climbed on the back and bullied a lift. I'd cried each time I tipped over and skinned my knee. But I forgot it all when I knew my real bike was coming on my seventh birthday. The night before, I dreamed vividly of riding fast and free. Then in the morning I found my new Raleigh: blue, large, heavy, shiny, and flanked at the back with training-wheels. Training-wheels!--nobody'd told me. You couldn't just ride; you had to learn it. Not riding free. Riding...anxious. Not riding like the big boys; you had to earn it. The first grand disappointment of my life. And so I taught myself to ride without training-wheels, slowly, anxiously, sitting way back on the carrier where my feet could touch the ground. My backside on the carrier, my whole body straining far forward over the seat and along the crossbar to reach the handlebars. Afraid I'd fall flat. Riding with the neighbourhood kids, round and round on the dry front lawn: bum bruised on the uncushioned carrier, arms high holding the handlebars, chin somewhere down past the spotless seat. Waiting for the courage to sit up, to risk something as special as...me.

Because I was better than the kids at school. Smarter, lovelier and even more moral. Just like the young Prince Charles. Always appointed group leader and doing what I should. I craved to be told how much better I was, how not like the others. And one day, cycling home at three o'clock down Manawatu Street, up on my seat at last, head high, I came across Linda Nuttall from my class. She was sitting in the grass by the gutter. Unlovely Linda Nuttall. Fallen from her bike, and the blood was pouring from her mouth and over her chin, blood and peril, mixing with the tears she was crying. And I rode on by. Afraid to stop. I rode on by, ashamed. Like the priest and the Levite in that Bible-class story--the old lady instructor that came once a week to tell us who was good and who was bad... And when I looked back, I saw Brian Hooper from class--unspecial Brian Hooper who was often naughty--getting off his bike and going to Linda Nuttall to help. A lady came out of a house. I rode on. Linda Nuttall lost two front teeth--it was news all over the school next day. No one knew anything about me. But I never forgot how others could surprise me, like the Good Samaritan who wasn't me...and it almost made me a better person. Almost.

The man and the woman came into our class. The mysterious man and woman by the dental clinic, who worked for Pacific Films. Another class came in and joined us--it was crowded. It was intoxicating. Pacific Films had chosen four boys, who'd need good bikes, good knowledge of the road rules and who could start that afternoon--and the names were read out without fuss. 'Kevin Delzel from room 12.' A little roughie. His mates all whispered in excitement. 'Gregory Stout, room 11; Peter Reece room 11.' Two nice, no-trouble friends from my class. We also whispered in excitement. But...I couldn't believe it: I wasn't going to be chosen? Oh, no, no, no! Not in my fated universe! And the last name, of course, was mine. I ate a quick lunch with my sense of entitlement fully intact. My classmates were just too surprised to say anything. They went off to play, and we went off to be special.

Mr Binns and Mr Colley, they were the traffic cops: they had to drive four small boys and their bikes out to their 'location'. Out of town, past Massey University, where my father worked--I knew the way well, not the least bit nervous...not really. And off into farmland: an unsealed road, a barbed-wire fence and rough-grassed flatland over to a narrow, rushing stream. A dark escarpment beyond the stream, overgrown with scrub and small trees. Then the woman and the man appeared--the woman first because the woman was in charge, driving her own Morris 1100, though, reassuringly, the man had his tripod, his camera and his boxes of manly equipment. Sue Pritchard, director; Graeme Cowley photography. 'Call us Sue and Graeme,' they said. First names. They were grown-ups--but they weren't somehow all that like real grown-ups. Graeme had long brown hair to his shoulders, a student's. Sue had short hair and glasses, like Mrs Truscott. She had a high voice with command in it. We used first names; we did what they said.

In the first scene, Kevin, Peter and I biked down the road. Over and over again. We had no idea there were takes. No idea scenes could be shot out of sequence. We'd never heard of editing. Truth to tell, we'd scarcely absorbed TV. Things to watch were still at the movies--the State, the Regent, the Odeon--with their shorts, their newsreels, their cartoons (yay!), the ritual anthem (stand up, God-Savour-Graayshusqun) and then the main feature. Ice-creams and lollies at half-time. TV had arrived just four years back, fresh from Wellington over the hills, on repeater stations that used to break down. Grainy, ghostly, black-and-white pictures. Before I was six it was Listen With Mother ('Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin') on the proud valve radiogram, solemn in a corner of the living-room. But after that, it was Troy Tempest in Stingray--and the Aquaphibians, and the beautiful Marina: the first love of my life was a marionette. Always in bed too early, reluctantly, for any programme after the 6.30 news: oh, I so wanted to see The Man from UNCLE! In the face of a disapproving world, by ten years old we were steeped in the United Network Command for Law-Enforcement. Not Prince Charles--I was Napoleon Solo. And my cobber was Illya Kuryakin. Together we collected bubble-gum cards with UNCLE pictures on the back--the whole set; we chewed ourselves silly. We saved the world from evil--though not perhaps from tooth decay. We were cool; we were suave with the girls. But I only saw the real thing when UNCLE came to the movies, because Napoleon Solo couldn't stay up for his own TV show. So when I got back from the first day of shooting at half-past six, I interrupted my parents who were phoning the police. I was confused that they couldn't understand they were dealing with a secret agent. They couldn't see: I was always safe.

And...action. Kevin, Peter and I meet Gregory, a naive country kid on his horse, and teach him how to ride a bike in safety. I was fascinated with the tracking shot, taken from the back of Sue's car as she drove away, Graeme filming steady in the lurching boot, and the three of us cycling behind. I was fascinated with the yards of film we were wasting. Three of us riding up to a horse on our bikes and dismounting, regulation-style--fifteen takes. And with so much waiting around. What actors did, I supposed. I was fascinated with the light-meter Graeme was holding up to find the sun, as it tanned us orange and peeled our noses. And the horse that Gregory was riding down the road towards the camera. All afternoon his elderly nag--named Lassie, and confused perhaps by that--plodded sideways out of shot to graze the long acre. Take after take. Till Sue was left fuming about 'that animal,' giving up by evening, settling for second-rate film. But as Gregory rode Lassie to return her home, the horse behaved at last and didn't stray once, heading homewards. And I...I pointed this out to Graeme, the good boy, me! Playing my favourite role, what an actor I was! And the camera grabbed some lovely shots.

And so much waiting around! 'Take five,' Graeme announced...we stood there, wondering. Take five what? We plucked up courage and asked Sue. Much amusement amongst the grown-ups. That evening I solemnly informed my parents about 'Take five.' And the boredom of waiting around, and so hot we drank bottles of soft drink all day. Always pestering Sue for more, till at last she gave us some without the opener and said, in a voice pleased at its own cunning, 'Open these by yourselves or give the bottles back.' Kevin's idea was first (well, he was the biggest): to prise the caps off on the barbed-wire fence. But no, the wire had too much slack. Then I remembered the edge on the boot of Sue's car: it had a nice metal lip, it was just what we needed. Maybe best do it when Sue wasn't looking. My successful idea: even Kevin was happy. But oh, so much waiting around. So hot and bored we'd go down to the stream and throw rocks in the water--our plan was to make a bridge and walk over the shallows. Till one day Peter fell in. He had to go home and change from wet clothes, damaged the schedule, ruined the continuity. Sue was wild! But why did grown-ups make us so bored if they wanted us to stay quiet and always the same?

Think about the time I rode my bike all the way out to Ashhurst, with Andy Tannock. A year older, he lived just across the street, and he was my guide to travel. Andy let me sit in his leaky canoe--first time I'd ever been anywhere on water--all the way to the island across the Centennial Lagoon. How I adored my own adventurism! So early one morning Andy persuaded me: we should ride our bikes to Ashhurst, out past the cemetery, on past the gas-works and down to the end of the long, long straight. Over eight miles--when I tried to give up halfway, he coaxed me forward until...we did it! We reached the domain, a real adventure, and an afternoon of roaming around. Spying on a couple reclined on a blanket, finding the moreporks in the trees. Getting back home so late at night (somehow returning didn't so seem far) that I was met at the door by our neighbour--my parents were out, they were frantically searching in the dark. I took a bath while I waited for them to come home. Why couldn't they have just stayed put? Now they'd got lost, and they were grown-ups...let them find their own way back--I knew where I was.

By the last day of filming, Friday, the novelty was gone and we shot the final scenes at a crossroad, far from the stream. Flat, windy, nowhere to play while we waited. Sue holding up a reflecting-board to get extra light on our faces while Graeme took a series of close-ups. The glare in our eyes as we pretended to smile--real acting now. Sue and Graeme drove us back to school by lunchtime. Strange to be back--what would happen? Well, the whole class was away at singing. No photographs, no autographs, no star in the sidewalk. The class had gone on without us. No one welcomed us, no one said: 'What was it like?' No one asked us to make a speech. No one clamoured to be our friend. And even the grown-ups pretended it had never happened. My proud parents told the neighbours, who said nothing. 'You look brown as a berry!' they chirped...and nothing. At last, it never happened. We never saw Sue and Graeme again. We didn't hear about the finished film. Maybe it wasn't so bad having Kevin with us, a big rough guy--so that no one gave us a hard time for what we'd gone and done.

But next year, standard four, a November morning, our class was taken out of our room to the tiny library. Sitting crammed in on the floor, with the heavy black curtains drawn. A big, round reel on the dusty projector. The teacher took no risk on explaining what this meant: one mustn't overexcite the children in one's care. But when the black-and-white pictures started whirring...we were there. Three boys riding down a road. A title, Cycling for Safety, over the screen. Getting off the bikes, climbing the fence and running into a paddock. The voice-over babbled and babbled and babbled: 'Road safety for everyone'--I wasn't listening. I watched in the dark, this strange thing--but it wasn't the location, it wasn't the same, wasn't me. I'd never seen me acting from outside before. I'd never seen me pretending to be someone special. It was…interesting; it was unsettling. And when the film stopped, and the teacher said nothing and my classmates said nothing and we went out to play, the right way and safely, I pretended to be good and said nothing, too...and I was almost ready to think nothing more about it. Almost.

Copyright Ian Richards, 2008

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