Between the Pedal and the Ground

It is very rare that I fall off my bicycle. But when I do it is invariably full of meaning. Veterans of this blog will be familiar with the tumble I took in the autumn of 2010. If not, you can read about it here:

The first time I fell off I was riding the 60 mile London to Brighton charity bike ride known as the Capital to Coast in 2001 – a ride I did 10 times between then and 2012. It became a sort of Ride of Recovery for me. I stopped because it lost its challenge. So, back on that first ride I was whizzing down a lovely straight descent in the countryside 9 miles in and failed to register the fact that the yellow – clad steward standing by the hedge at the side of the road indicating a left turn was doing so for my benefit. Too late I caught on to what he was doing. Instead of slowing down, passing the turning and cycling back to where he had been indicating, I swung left where he was standing and came clattering down onto a grassy verge with all the dignity of, well, an over – enthusiastic novice. The pain in my left arm was excruciating. The steward – with commendable calm – called the St John’s ambulance, who minutes later, on inspection of the elbow in question, declared that since I hadn’t broken the skin I should be alright to continue with the ride. He should know, right? Somehow, I completed the ride. From that point I was in such pain I was unable to change gears with my left hand. A visit to the Accident and Emergency Department the following morning confirmed the obvious – I had broken the radial bone in my elbow. I can still clearly recall the glowing sense of achievement at the knowledge that I had ridden 51 miles with – what I always refer to as – a broken arm. Never a prouder moment did I have on that route again.

Image result for cyclist falling off

I put that one down to a mixture of inexperience (those ride stewards wave their arms around for a reason) and sheer enthusiasm.

But recently I have been reflecting on a phrase I came across recently (in Graeme Greene’s classic gangster novel set in my home town in the 1930s, Brighton Rock.) In it, the main protagonist, a 17 year old gangster called Pinkie, reflects upon what would happen to his soul if he was to die suddenly with no chance of a death bed conversion. Greene puts the words of the 16th century historian William Camden into the mouth of this unlikely philosopher: ‘Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found.’  What grips me about this phrase is the possibility – everywhere it seems – of sudden death robbing us of …. something. Absolution? If not from a deity then from family, friends, people we ( O.K.,I) may have wronged. That there will be no time to put my affairs in order.

It is the prospect of not dying on one’s own terms (peacefully, heroically) that grips. Perhaps that is an element in the suicidal mind: I cannot control anything – my thoughts, my feelings, other people’s thoughts and feelings about me, things that happen to me, seemingly unbreakable mental dynamics. The desperate, the cool – headed, realisation that the options for change have run out. It is as if the person (you? Me?) wrests back control from these narrow, plunging straits of despair by taking decisive action to put an end – once and for all – to …. the pain, the sorrow, the guilt, the regret, the shame. And once that is finally accomplished, once revenge is (yours? Mine?) we will feel alright at last. But all that blots out one awkward, tiresome, insistent question: in taking this life, do (you? Me?) enter a new life, an existence full of promise, possibility, acceptance, hope and sheer relief? Or is it only here, with this tired heart and these slack lungs, that we can find that damp, grimy possibility that something else is possible?

Lady Lazarus

I have done it again.

One year in every ten

I manage it –


A sort of walking miracle, my skin

Bright as a Nazi lampshade,

My right foot


A paperweight,

My face a featureless, fine

Jew linen.


Peel off the napkin

O my enemy.

Do I terrify? –


The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?

The sour breath

Will vanish in a day.


Soon, soon the flesh

The grave cave ate will be

At home on me.


And I a smiling woman.

I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.


This is Number Three.

What a trash

To annihilate each decade.


What a million filaments.

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see


Them unwrap me hand and foot –

The big strip tease.

Gentlemen, ladies


These are my hands

My knees.

I may be skin and bone,


Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.

The first time it happened I was ten.

It was an accident.


The second time I meant

To last it out and not come back at all.

I rocked shut


As a seashell.

They had to call and call

And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.



Is an art, like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.


I do it so it feels like hell.

I do it so it feels real.

I guess you could say I’ve a call.


It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.

It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.

It’s the theatrical


Comeback in broad day

To the same place, the same face, the same brute

Amused shout:


‘A miracle!’

That knocks me out.

There is a charge


For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart –

It really goes.


And there is a charge, a very large charge

For a word or a touch

Or a bit of blood


Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

So, so, Herr Doktor.

So, Herr Enemy.


I am your opus,

I am your valuable,

The pure gold baby


That melts to a shriek.

I turn and burn.

Do not think I underestimate your great concern.


Ash, ash —

You poke and stir.

Flesh, bone, there is nothing there –


A cake of soap,

A wedding ring,

A gold filling.


Herr God, Herr Lucifer




Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

Sylvia Plath (1932 – 1963)




This entry was posted in Bi Polar Disorder, Cycling, Depression, Mania, Mental Health, mental illness, Poetry and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Between the Pedal and the Ground

  1. John Werner says:

    Hi Nick,

    I enjoyed this but perhaps you could explain Sylvia Plath’s poem to me sometime. Love Dad


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