Title: The Great Boffo
Author: Frank Dickens
Year: 1973 (re-issued 2015)
What it is: A classic British kids' book with a cycling hero
Strengths: A charming little memory from the 1970s
Weaknesses: It's very, very short
Before there was The Office and before there was Dilbert - and even before there was Reginald Perrin - there was Frank Dickens's Bristow, a comic strip set in the offices of RL Chester-Perry Co Ltd, starring the eponymous buying clerk and telling of the trials and tribulations of the life quotidian in a not atypical office. Its four decade run in London's Evening Standard made it something of an institution, Bristow himself becoming such a recognisable character that the likes of British Telecom and London Underground used him in advertising campaigns.
With a forty-year run, many legends grew to surround Bristow. One has it that sharp-eyed readers of the strip may have noticed newspaper headlines Dickens included, such as 'Alf Breaks Another Record' or 'Alf Wins Again.' For those in the know, these were sly references to the British time trial specialist Alf Engers. Frank Dickens - who was born in 1931, just a few years before Engers - has been for most of his life a keen cyclist and follower of cycling. How keen? Here is how the man himself put it:
"My life-long ambition was to become the greatest racing cyclist the world has ever known and the place to achieve this was Paris, France. After failing dismally, I turned to thinking about the Future."
Between the ambition and the failure falls a shadow in which a beguiling legend has grown, one in which Dickens almost became one of the Pioneers, that generation of post-War British riders who upped sticks and left Blighty behind them in the hope of cutting the mustard on the continental cycling scene. For every one that succeeded - for every Brian Robinson - there were countless numbers of anonymous riders who returned from whence they came. And the legend has it that Dickens earned a place in that latter cohort, that after having taken up cycling in his teens, just after the war had ended, Dickens tried to break into the pro ranks by moving to France once he had completed his national service.
Legends have a habit of stretching the truth to breaking point and the legend of Dickens's French years does just that, a fact confirmed to me by a lifelong friend of Dickens, Bill Houghton, president of the Unity CC, which Dickens joined in 1947: "It has come up in a lot of articles about him but this story once started became fact. We all did our National Service and came home trying to earn a living. Frank's early working years were a mixture of jobs, all poorly paid and allowed him little time to ride, let alone race."
The poorly paid jobs allowing little time to ride, let alone race, drew to a close at the commencement of the 1960s. Here's Dickens's account of the story behind that:
"Since I knew nought of anything but bicycles, and anyone can draw a bicycle, I started to do just that. To my surprise and delight I found a ready market in French magazines specializing in bicycle racing. I eventually realized that this was not the way to undying fame and fortune, so I decided to expand my horizons. My lack of drawing ability led me to more words to accompany the scribbles and this led to a comic strip, Oddbod, in the Sunday Times. This in turn led to a book of short stories, What the Dickens, about men trying to do away with their wives and said wives trying to dispose of their husbands. From this little book sprang Bristow, who was soon to become a star of another comic strip cartoon."
Legend has it that the cycling cartoons were sold to L'Équipe and Paris-Match in 1959, the same year Dickens gained admission to Fleet Street, contributing cartoons to the Sunday Express, followed by several other papers. Oddbod started life in the Sunday Times in 1960 and What the Dickens appeared in 1961. Eventually came fame at home and abroad, with Bristow in the UK and Albert Herbert Hawkins: The Naughtiest Boy in the World in the US.
As well as his newspaper work, Dickens also published several original books - along with numerous compilations of his cartoons - and that's where The Great Boffo comes in, it being one of about a dozen children's books with Dickens's name on the cover and coming from a fine tradition of kids' cycling books.
First published in 1973, this slim little volume tells the story of a kid who works as a delivery boy for a wine merchant and dreams of becoming as famous a cyclist as his idol, the mustachioed great Boffo. On the day of the bicycle race in his village - in which Boffo will be riding - the boy is dispatched to deliver bottles of lemonade to the house on the hill, a journey which gives him ample opportunity to wish his weighty delivery bike was instead Boffo's sleek racing machine. Along the way the kid crosses the route of the race at the feed zone and, noting the absence of people with drinks for the riders, offers to the peloton as it passes the lemonade he was meant to be delivering. When one rider drops a bottle Boffo punctures both wheels and - there being no team car or neutral support to offer him fresh wheels - requisitions the kid's delivery bike in order to complete the race. When the kid tries to protest that it isn't a racing machine Boffo retorts that "the man is more important than the machine." And off Boffo races on the delivery bike, in pursuit of the peloton which has faded into the distance on the road ahead of him.
Dickens's style of illustration is distinctively his own and, in an age of stick-thin champions, time has added an extra charm to the corpulence of his characters. Most charming, of course, is the simple moral of the tale: the man is more important than the machine. This is the sort of propaganda parents should force onto their kids so they learn early that an off-the-peg ride without an illustrious brand to its name can be just as good as any over-priced frame that claims as its chief merit that it is used by a World Tour team. For the price of this slim volume and the effort of a few hours reading it to your kids, you could be saving yourself a small fortune further down the road when little Johnny or Jane starts dreaming of Mr Pinarello's exceedingly expensive little ponies. Plus, of course, you get to enjoy the nostalgia of it all, a 1970s British classic getting a second wind in the new millennium.
Boffo's success in the village bike race opened the way for a whole raft of adventures for the titular hero and in later books his cycling successes were matched by adventures featuring motor bikes (Boffo and the Great Motorcycle Race), planes (Boffo and the Great Air Race), balloons (Boffo and the Great Balloon Race) and cross country running (Boffo and the Great Cross Country Race). A true renaissance man, that Boffo, to be able to master so many arts.
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The Great Boffo was not Dickens's sole cycling book. He authored - but did not illustrate - a how-to cycling manual, My First Bike Book. And he authored two cycling novels in the 1980s, A Curl Up and Die Day (set against the backdrop of the 1965 world championships, in San Sebastián) and Three Cheers for the Good Guys (featuring a former Olympic cyclist from Sweden). He was also involved in a cycling board game, La Volata, and wrote a TV drama, The Third Thief, about drugs in cycling. With The Great Boffo getting a new push and cycling having the popularity it does in the UK, one can but hope that some enterprising publisher puts some of Dickens's other cycling writing back into print in the near future.
What I would most like to see, though, is something about Dickens's own adventures awheel. Rarely when digging into the story behind a book have I come across an author whose life sounds as interesting as that of Frank Dickens, by all accounts a bon vivant of the highest order. The legend of his French years may not be quite true but the stories told by and about Dickens more than entertain. Here he is from an online diary entry in October 2010 recalling club runs with the Unity:
"In earlier days Sunday was the day of the week. Sunday was wind blowing in the hair and the whirring of wheels. The club run. I was the Unity CC runs captain for a while. I wore the badge with pride. I carried the whistle that controlled the pack. Peep! Peep! Peep! Peep! Those were the days. The days of stopping at Mac's café on the Bath Road and asking for ‘fifty beans on toast'. The surprising reply - 'will that be fifty beans on one piece of toast?' from Bluto behind the counter. Peep! Peep! They don't grow men like that any more.
"Mac's café was a railway carriage that had been converted into a cycling Mecca. Fifty beans on toast was nothing to a place like that. It had a huge teapot on the roof. Huge. Six feet high. Grey metal (looked like tin).
"Unhappy sequel. One day I mislaid both badge and whistle and naturally was replaced as runs captain by an inferior man. The club was never the same."
Alan Bennett - Talking Heads, The History Boys - in one of his diaries tells this story of Dickens:
"About the same age as me, he still cycles but not as sedately as I do: Frank goes racing cycling, and even wears lycra shorts. He has several bikes, and when someone else in his club admired one of them and offered to buy it, Frank made him a present of it. When they were out cycling next, the young man to whom he had given the bike kept just behind him, mile after mile, until Frank slowed down and waved him on, whereupon the young man streaked away into the distance far faster than Frank could go. Afterwards he asked him why it had taken him so long to pass and the young man said: ‘Well, I didn't feel it was right to pass you on your own bike.' The existence of such an unmapped social area and the delicacy required to negotiate it would have delighted Erving Goffman."
Like Tim Hilton's One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers one imagines that Dickens has a wealth of stories to tell about the daily life of a club rider in the British bicycling scene. That book, alas, must for now remain as one of the great unwritten texts in cycling's vast Library of Babel. In the meanwhile, do treat yourself to The Great Boffo, a charming little memento of tales untold.