Title: The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture – Riveting Stories and Curiosities from Cosmopolitan Great Britain
Authors: Guy Andrews (editor), Bella Bathurst, Anthony Cairns (photography), Geoff Dyer, Joe W Hall, Guy Kesteven, Joe MacLaren (illustrations), George Marshall (photography), David Millar, Martin Parr (photography), Laura Quick (illustrations), Amy Sherlock, Mark Sutton, and Jack Thurston
Publisher: Thames & Hudson for Brooks England
Order: Brooks England | Thames & Hudson
What it is: One hundred and fifty years after the birth of Brooks, a celebration of cycling and of an iconic British cycling brand
Strengths: A visual treat that captures the essence of Brooks without bothering with detail
Weaknesses: In places it balances precariously between celebrating and selling
On the rivet. We all know what it means: “The classic English cycling term for being at the limit of your speed. [...] It made sense because as riders crouch forward over the handlebars to place more power into the pedals, they naturally end up right on the tip of the saddle where the rivet would have been”. Different cycling cultures have different ways of saying the same thing. In France – you can learn in The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture – you're likely to be riding à bloc, all out. In Spain you'll be el gancho, on the hook – not the hooks of the handlebar but a fisherman's hook: “the action fitting with the gasping for air and leaning forward like a fish being pulled from the water.” In Italy, you'd also be on the hook, al gancio, but this time a butcher's hook, like meat in an abattoir.
The rivet has become almost emblematic of Brooks saddles. The ubiquitous Paul Smith, haberdasher to the wealthy, recalls the days of his youth and how he'd pimp his ride: “There was also this thing for adding copper rivets to your Brooks saddle. A pal of mine in the cycle club I belonged to would bash the original rivets out and put copper ones in, and get this lovely finish on them.”
The rivets have been there from the beginning. The legend is well known, repeated – with embellishments – in so many potted histories of the birth of the bicycle. How a twenty-year-old John Boultbee Brooks washed up in Birmingham in 1865 with the princely sum of £20 in his pockets. The following year – 1866, the same year the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid, paving the way for future generations to watch cat videos on YouTube – he established the firm of JB Brooks & Co, dealers in leather harnesses and tackle for horses. Years later, after the death of the horse that carried the now thirty-something Brooks from home to office, he was loaned a bicycle to carry out his commute upon. Finding the experience to be something of a pain in the posterior, Brooks – like John Boyd Dunlop in Belfast around the same time – set himself the task of adding comfort to the experience of cycling and in 1882 he filed a patent for a bicycle saddle. In 1888 he introduced the first Brooks B17, a range of saddles still in production today.
The business prospered and by the time the First World War broke out JB Brooks & Co was employing 600-700 people and manufacturing “cycle and motorcycle saddles, leather goods, motor car trunks and other accessories.” After Brooks's death in 1921 the second generation of the family took over the business, developing the luggage range and expanding the business into kitchen fittings. Toward the end of the 1950s, with the third generation of Brooks now to the fore and JB Brooks & Co employing around 1,500 people across its different divisions, the business was broken up and sold to new owners, with Raleigh taking ownership of the saddles division.
Raleigh became what business manuals like to call a vertically integrated business. Not only did it make bicycles but it also had subsidiaries supplying the raw materials needed in the manufacture of those bikes, its divisions including Sturmey-Archer – makers of the eponymous hub gear and other cycle components – along with Reynolds Tubing and Brooks. In July 2000 Raleigh's American owners decided it was time to get back to basics and started off-loading non-core divisions, selling Sturmey-Archer and Brooks to a company which, within months of the deal being announced, went broke. There's a fascinating story behind that, reminiscent of Philip Green's blighted sale of BHS only with redundancy payments replacing pension obligations but, largely, Brooks and its couple of dozen employees were spared the worst of what happened. John Macnaughton, who had joined Raleigh in 1965, managed to put a deal together to buy the business from the receiver, with the aid of Pashley's Adrian Williams. Under the guidance of Williams Pashley – whose sturdy, no fuss bikes had carried British postmen on their rounds for generations – had become a heritage brand, trading on nostalgia, and it was in this direction that Brooks turned in order to secure its future.
In 2002 the business was sold to the Italian saddle manufacturer Selle Royal. Founded in the 1950s and now owned by the second generation of the Bigolin family – the three sisters Barbara, Lucia and Francesca – Selle Royal successfully straddles the heritage and modern markets, through the cachet of its own name and through the mass market appeal of its Fizik range. As a result of their investment, the rebirth of Brooks as a heritage brand – the Rapha of saddles – has been complete and The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture sees Brooks serving up a loving celebration of all that makes Brooks great.
A loving celebration ... I liked this book, really: it's got all the wonderful production values you expect of anything that involves Guy Andrews (Bike Mechanic, Magnum Cycling, Greg LeMond – Yellow Jersey Racer, Tom Simpson – Bird on the Wire); visually it's a treat with some great photography and some wonderful illustrations; and it's got some good writing. But. It's a loving celebration. At times a bit too loving. At times a bit too celebratory. At times a bit too obviously what it really is: marketing.
This is quite unlike Guido Rubino and Paulo Faccinetti's Campagnolo hagiography: the history of Brooks is, for the most part, hidden from view. Instead The Brooks Compendium seeks to celebrate the culture from which Brooks sprang, the culture with which the heritage brand wishes to associate itself: British workmanship and ingenuity. And at times this is Millennium Dome territory, this is Jubilympics territory. Instead of the history Brooks had to endure – a typical family business, built and sundered in three generations and then passed from pillar to post as new owners came and went, leaving the business a bystander to history, softly ticking over before its rebirth under new owners – this is the history people want to believe in: the Industrial Revolution (minus the slums and the exploitation) as proof of British exceptionalism.
It's not all like that. For the most part that's just two chapters over egging the pudding a touch for my tastes. And most of the the rest of The Brooks Compendium does raise some interesting issues. Jack Thurston (Lost Lanes, Lost Lanes Wales) turns the celebration of the Industrial Revolution back on itself by noting this:
“People fell in love with the bicycle, the quintessential product of the machine age, because it gave them a way to leave the industrial world behind.”
Or there's Bella Bathurst (The Bicycle Book) noting how the oft quoted claim about the bicycle expanding the gene pool is, well, questionable. And there's Amy Sherlock (frieze) using another hoary old chestnut to make a challenging point:
“The persistence of the Leonardo origin myth says something about the romanticization of the bicycle in contemporary culture.”
It isn't just contemporary culture in which the bicycle has been romanticized, as Sherlock herself notes in a terrific section of the book that looks at the bicycle in art. Picasso's Bulls Head, created in 1942, recalls carefree days awheel before the Occupation. For the Futurists in the 1900s it was about romanticising the then novel notion of a world in which everything was getting faster, with the bicycle one of the things that symbolised for them “a new form of beauty: the beauty of speed.” Jean Tinguely used a bicycle “in reaction to the postwar boom in consumption and mass production.”
Elsewhere, Geoff Dyer dips into the photography archives, choosing images not frequently seen:
“Healthy, convenient, cool, a bike, in certain conditions, can also be a way of avoiding the might of the state, as this famous image by Liu Heung Shing shows. It was taken soon after the storming of Tiananmen Square in 1989. In addition to this value – and despite the circumstances in which it was made – the picture also captures the romance of the bicycle.”
Romance is at the heart of The Brooks Compendium – this is a book that puts the T into eroica – and even the cynic has to acknowledge that there is something marvelously romantic in the story of Brooks: how a once innovative business sank slowly into the anonymity of a household brand, something taken for granted until, right at the moment when its demise seemed assured, it was rescued and transformed, turning its traditional and utilitarian appeal into something aspirational not just in terms of luxury and expense, but also in terms of ideals. Ideals captured here in photography by people like Helen Levitt, ideals captured here in art by people like Lucy and Jorge Orta, ideals captured here in stories about travellers like Dervla Murphy. In celebrating the world Brooks wants to belong to The Brooks Compendium gives the book-lover a proper treat: something you want to own both for its beauty and for what’s inside it. Just like a Brooks saddle, the marketeers might might say.