Monthly Archives: May 2011


My experience with songwriting (and life generally) is that one needs reminding of what’s Good and Important at regular intervals – even the most Dickensian epiphany never lasts more than a few weeks. The paradox of May is that though it’s been quite an unproductive month (in many senses and for many reasons), it’s nevertheless been heaping these reminders on me. May morning itself was a gorgeous experience, as I was once again able to attend Andy Letcher’s insane dawn band (I was also given a head garland, which I later fed to a horse). A trip to the Natural History Museum’s new dinosaur exhibition with The Dapper Swindler and a couple of allies had some of the same effects, and I had some meaningful stage-time with MC Lars in South Wimbledon last night. Lars is a guy who’s always good for reminding you what’s good about the world. The deepest reminder this week, though, has been the sudden and utterly unexpected return of the Triumph:

This is a trivial story, which I will now tell at length to make what I hope is a non-trivial point. For those of you not in the know, the Triumph was stolen from outside my house while I was in the process of moving out of Oxford about ten months ago. The Record, The Dapper Swindler’s sister-ship famously found in a skip, had been stolen from the same place about a month earlier. Together the bikes had formed a crucial part of the drill-aesthetic of my second Oxford phase, and their theft was the seal on the horrible feeling of abandonment that I was feeling as I once again left my favourite city (I will return to this feeling, after a fashion, at the end). I have a firmly-established tradition of being stupid about bikes, and I never walk past a bike-rack in Oxford without checking to see if either of them happened to be anchored there.

A few months after the Triumph was nicked, I found it advertised for sale on Gumtree – a total coincidence. I knew it straight away from the photos the seller had posted. The shonky rear basket, fitted by incredible action-man and schoolfellow Stephen Q. Cumberland (not his real middle initial) was instantly recognisable. But better, I had a guarantee card with a serial number on it, and I knew that number would still be on the bike itself as well. Amazed at my luck, I told the police about the website.

The police spent a total of around two hours on the phone to me over the next week. I provided all the details of myself, the bike, the theft, and my discovery of it at least three times to different officers who were not apparently in communication with each other. I identified, from a detail in the photograph of the Triumph on Gumtree, the exact house outside which it had been taken (it was near-ish to mine). After a few months without word, a police officer phoned to tell me that they were dropping the case. After another few months, they phoned to tell me they were re-opening the case. A fortnight later, they phoned to tell me they were closing it again.

This brings us to last Tuesday. Walking Jessi to her bus stop in the late afternoon, I had been teased by her for scrutinizing all the bike racks again. “I think it’s time you got over it”, she said. I waved goodbye to her bus, turned around, walked into Radcliffe Square, and saw the Triumph. There was no mistaking it, but I checked the serial number anyway, and after calling the ever-pliant Parkes for the police’s phone number (the one they have on their website isn’t a real number, by the way), I managed to get through to someone. I then waited over an hour for an officer, at twilight, in drizzle, wearing only a t-shirt, accompanied for fifty minutes of that time by the person who had bought the bike from the thief, and believed it to be his. Because the waiting got successively more awkward, and because it was pretty awkward to begin with (“hi… er… so this bike.. isn’t yours”) each of those fifty minutes was the most awkward of my entire life. Dan (for so was he named) turned out to be a true gentleman who accepted his lot with far more grace than I would have, and after a lot of shivering and some conversations so stilted that I think i actually lost consciousness at one point, a PC turned up and formally gave me my bike back. There was a brief moment when she flirted with seizing it as evidence, which would have really been too much, but it all worked out eventually and I was left alone in Radcliffe Square, holding the Triumph – something which I never believed would happen again.

There was a final hairy moment. All my stuff was still in the Bodleian, and now I had a bike but no lock, and was alone. I left the Triumph unlocked against the railings and did the fastest library check-out I’ve ever done, visualising throughout the blog entry I would have to write if I got the Triumph back for 38 seconds and then immediately let it get stolen again. But fate was on my side and I re-emerged from the Bodleian just in time to cycle off into the sunset. The next day, I spent an absurd amount of money on a really good D-Lock (although, note to those seeking to chide: it had such a lock on when it was originally stolen), fixed the brakes (which were screwed) by myself (For I Am A Man) and sequestered the Triumph in Jessi’s care until such a time as I can reclaim Oxford formally.

This is a nice anecdote for me largely because of the obscene perfection of some of the details – the timing of both the theft (as I left Oxford) and rediscovery (as I contemplate the possibility of returning); the location – Radcliffe Square, a place with which I already have so many connections and so much history; and the sheer odds against the find taking place. To review those odds: I don’t live in Oxford, and pass through that square perhaps four times a month at the moment. Dan lives and works in bits of Oxford I never visit, and his parking it in Radcliffe Square was a one-off. I happened to have reported the theft (owing to the gum tree find, in itself coincidental) and the crime report had the serial number on it. The serial number happened to be still legible (the PC who attended said that this was the first time she’d seen a visible serial number on a bike match a crime report).

What moral do we draw from this life-affirming set of coincidences, and what has it to do with the stuff I was saying at the top of this entry about knowing the drill? Other than that “you can commit small crimes” (the police were, let’s face it, not at their best here) I do think there’s a wider spiritual lesson. Let’s start with what I’m not saying: of course I don’t believe that some guiding hand of providence magically placed the Triumph in my path. Anyone who doesn’t believe in coincidences is provably an idiot, which is why we generally characterise the Vibe as having only narrative agency. The Vibe is all the little coincidences personified – you can’t control him. But you can encourage him, which is what knowing the Drill is about. Our drill is stories, and putting stories onto the Triumph and the Record enabled us to appreciate the coincidences when they happened – not more than an aggrieved bike-owner who might not have done so, but in more ways. We saw this last year, when Max’s guitar was trashed by Easyjet and then miraculously restored (note to musicians: don’t use Easyjet). We will see it in the future, on the dark day when the Peug leaves us (but that day has supposedly come and gone several times now..).

If there wasn’t the Max-Will narrative frenzy around the two bikes, would I have found the Triumph? This question is impossible to answer. But, to tease at it just slightly, someone who hadn’t incorporated the bike into his personal fantasy universe
might not still have had an eye open for it ten months later (might, in short, have got over it; might have walked past it). Worse, for me, is the idea that had such a person found it, the resulting emotion would have been one of happiness at luck, at the restoration of a material thing, once lost – good enough, no doubt, but hardly the cacophonous joy of riding the streets of Oxford on my Triumph again.

This joy, or something like it, is the feeling we sometimes call “It”, which is something Max and I have been chasing for many years now. This anecdote and the others I mentioned at the top remind me the quest is a worthwhile one, with pure motives and tangible results. A lost bike is an annoyance, a frustration, a missing thing. We move on. A lost Triumph gallops beyond that. There’s nothing mystic at work here – you still need the coincidences to happen. But you also need to be receptive to them. Let’s have stories, then, and passion, and peaks and troughs in equal measure, and let’s let things and people into ourselves, even though some of them will betray that trust, and some of them will leave. Let’s be pen and paper, imagining the world and letting it imagine us back. Let’s laugh, cry, strive, fail, drink, eat, sing, dance and think together (and separately), breathing the air while we can, coming up, for as long as possible, with the best ways to appreciate, in our own style, the brief time that has been given to us.

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