Title: The Wind at My Back – A Cycling Life
Author: Paul Maunder
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport
What it is: A chamoir that mixes thoughts on cycling and writing
Strengths: It mixes elements of Jack Thurston’s Lost Lanes series with bits of Edward Thomas’ In Pursuit of Spring and Jon Day’s Cyclogeography
Weaknesses: It’s less than the sum of its parts
“You’re a writer, because you write, and you have no choice in the matter. But if no fucker reads it, what’s the point?”
~ Paul Maunder
Born in Oxford (“the city of dreaming spires, where I was born in the snowbound February of 1974, amid fuel shortages and the Three-Day Week”), Paul Maunder grew up in Watlington (“just another Oxford village with a quaint High Street, a homely butcher’s shop and a couple of half-decent pubs nestled among the cottages”) and nearby Henley-on-Thames (home of the regatta). Growing up, the worst thing to happen to him seems to have been a fear of what was under his bed. Not the monsters Pixar charmed us with but something else entirely:
“At five, I used to demand that I go to bed with the lights on and the door open. Before closing my eyes I would get out of my bed to check there were no bombs underneath. I was scared of assassination attempts. A sign of an over-active ego as much as an over-active imagination.”
As a child, Maunder rode the local lanes alone, with his father, and with a particularly middle-class group of CTC riders (“On some rides, my father calculated, because he values such things, there were more people with PhDs than not”). In time, he graduated to racing, in time he gradually became bored with racing (“cycling should always feel like an adventure, an exploration. Racing was fun, thrilling even. But I missed those long meandering CTC rides a few years before”), and in time he quit racing (“My racing career, which ended when I was 19, was modest. At the time I blamed a lack of natural talent. In recent years, having got to know a few elite racing cyclists, I’ve come to understand just how strong their competitive urge is. Without it an athlete will never drive himself to the top of his chosen sport. Impossible. I didn’t have that competitive spirit”).
At the appropriate age Maunder left home for university (politics at Norwich), went to a few raves, dropped some ecstasy and eventually graduated. Then he read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and had an epiphany: “As I got further in, one thought bounced up and down in my brain: I can do this.”
Many a critic has said something similar of Ellis’ books (I do like that bit in The Rules of Attraction where the guy is watching Dr Caligari on mute but for some reason I can never remember anything else from Ellis’ books, sometimes I can’t even remember having read them, even as I stare at their spines on my bookshelf). But Maunder wasn’t doing droll:
“When I did sit down to write, a few days later, my lack of reading was a huge benefit. I had very little conception of what constituted good writing so I had no self-imposed barriers. Confidence, arrogance, hubris – I had those.”
Since that fateful day in 1995 when he was touched by the spirit of Bret Easton Ellis, Maunder’s preferred pronoun has been novelist: “I identify as a novelist. A failed novelist, because I have yet to publish a novel, but a novelist all the same.”
And so he wrote. And he wrote. And he wrote. Four full novels he wrote, he tells us, all rejected, along with several aborted novels.
Having given up cycling before university Maunder rediscovered cycling after. He got a job, the nature of which is a guarded secret (I want to imagine it’s in MI5 and he can’t tell us about it but I suspect it’s something shameful like online marketing). He married, sprogged, moved house a few times and eventually made it to London’s southern suburbs, somewhere ill-defined but out Greenwich direction, the edge of the second and third circles of London’s zones, where east meets west. Like a latter-day Reginald Perrin, Maunder looks on suburban life with scorn:
“Some of my neighbours are fond of saying, in a rather smug way, ‘It’s like a village round here.’ By which they mean that people talk to each other on the street, pop in and out of each other’s houses clutching bottles of Prosecco, bump into each other at the school gates and in the supermarket and at the children’s ballet classes.”
Still he wrote and he wrote and he wrote and still he remained unpublished until, one day, he descended from Mount Parnassus and became a cycling journalist:
“My mid-life crisis manifested itself as a switch between literary genres. To the external viewer, that is to say everyone else, the fact that I had written fiction and was now going to try non-fiction probably didn’t seem ground-shaking. To me, having obsessed over fiction for almost 20 years, it was bold, scary, exciting and disappointing. This last adjective applies because I felt like a failure: I’d failed in my stated aim to publish a novel and rather than battering on against the headwind, I’d turned round to enjoy the tailwind. Non-fiction was easier, was something of a cop-out. [...] I’d failed at cycling because I wanted to turn professional but had got nowhere near. I’d failed at writing because I wanted to win the Booker Prize but hadn’t even got into print. What do two negatives make? A positive.”
His slumming it in the mean streets of cycling journalism has seen Maunder writing for magazines like Rouleur, Soigneur, and Peloton (I admire the original founders of Rouleur for their knowing nod to Jock Wadley’s Coureur but, seriously, since then it’s all become a bit tiresome, hasn’t it?). He published a book about cyclo-cross, 2017’s Rainbows in the Mud. And then came this.
Maunder himself clearly does not believe there is enough in the above to spin much of a story from and so has padded out this chamois memoir – chamoir – with his thoughts on cycling and his thoughts on writing. The former first.
The cycling side of The Wind at My Back is a mix of elements of Jack Thurston’s much loved Lost Lanes series of guidebooks to some of the UK’s best backroads, crossed with borrowings from Edward Thomas’ In Pursuit of Spring and a flavouring of Jon Day’s Cyclogeopgraphy, served on a buttery biscuit base of Max Leonard’s Higher Calling and spiced with direct borrowings from Tim Krabbé and Paul Fournel and Roland Barthes and plated with a side serving of allusions to Jean Bobet and others.
(I think something in it is also meant to evoke Matt Seaton’s The Escape Artist which here is considered a “seminal memoir” but for me is, despite its own merits, always lost in the shadow of his wife’s Before I Say Goodbye. I feel obliged to note that other seminal works Maunder mentions are the philosopher Alan Watts’ seminal The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, Richard Long’s seminal artwork A Line Made by Walking, and Primal Scream’s seminal album Screamadelica. I’m struggling to not see something Freudian in this use of the word seminal.)
An assemblage of parts, The Wind at My Back is stitched together Frankenstein fashion: you can see the join when, for all its borrowings to properly work together, they need to fit seamlessly. Instead of creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts, all that Maunder’s many borrowings do is to remind you just how good (most of) those other books are and make you wish it was them you were reading instead.
As well as a lot of unoriginal ideas borrowed from others, Maunder is prone to making wild generalisations about cycling:
“Just as walkers follow footpaths, cyclists seek out small lanes. [...] We love lanes because they bring us closer to nature, and because they remind us of older journeys, those of footpaths and tracks between villages. Riding along a lane, a cyclist brushes the lively habitat of hedge and verge; indeed, the humble hedge is the thing a British cyclist spends most of his time looking at. One becomes used to peering into its honeycomb holes, searching out small animals, berries, flowers and jettisoned biscuit wrappers.”
Or try this on for size and see if it fits you:
“I wasn’t sure why I was riding. It wasn’t training for a race, it wasn’t to get fit for its own sake – I had no interest in that. And yet still every weekend I went out for a spin. There was something deep in me that needed the bike, just as I needed to put words on the page, I didn’t connect the two, but with the benefit of hindsight I can. Because all cyclists, whether they admit it or not, are voyeurs.”
The notion that cyclists and writers are both voyeurs is the join between the writing about cycling and the writing about writing sides of The Wind at My Back, the bit that somehow allows Maunder to imagine two negatives (dull and unoriginal) combine to make a positive (luminous).
As with the writing about cycling side, the writing about writing feels like an assemblage of borrowed parts. Writing about writing being too onanistic for my tastes I avoid it but fortunately Maunder is only too happy to offer clues to possible sources:
“I consumed with hunger any book or article about being a writer. From the Paris Revue interviews to Ted Hughes’ book on the craft of poetry, Poetry in the Making, to David Lodge’s Art of Fiction, James Wood’s How Fiction Works and many more. I read anything I could that would improve my craft. A by-product of which was that I absorbed a lot of messages about the tenacity of writers. Don’t give up. Keep going. Just get to the end. These were common exhortations. Most relevant – finish one book, start the next book the following day. I realised that, for me, writing wasn’t something I could give up: it was part of my DNA. So was cycling, but there was no longer any chance of cycling bringing me fame and bucketloads of money, so it seemed less pressing.”
Above and beyond the famous and wealthy Booker-winning writer, the type of writer Maunder most identifies with is the tortured writer. “It’s tiring,” we’re told, “thinking like a novelist all the time.” Tiring? “Writers,” he tells us, “are always trying to tune in to their own emotions, and the fear that buzzes somewhere in the hinterland between subconscious and imagination is a very powerful emotion. Ah-ha! thinks the writer, here lies literary gold.” Personally, I suspect it’s cliches like that that made Maunder a failed novelist.
If you’re an aspiring writer who wants to revel in the misery of it all and can’t quite cope with that tenth circle of hell that is Writers on Twitter Telling Each Other How Awful Life as a Writer Is then maybe this is for you, maybe you can identify with Maunder’s middle-class suburban angst. Everyone else? Go read Lost Lanes. Go read Higher Calling. Go read In Pursuit of Spring.
Part of what makes Edward Thomas’ In Pursuit of Spring such a popular book is the story of what happened to Thomas after it came out. And so here I’ll tell you that as well as most recently being the ghost in the machine of Dan Bigham’s Start at the End and as well as being the author of a forthcoming biography of Charly Gaul, Maunder is now a failed failed-novelist, his sci-fi novel The Atomics having appeared in 2021. Next stop, the Booker.