The other day I read the New Statesman's recent supplement on lifelong learning. Somebody had rung up various famous people and asked what they had learnt since stopping formal education. I don't think they meant one of those sayings like "life isn't a rehearsal" or "don't ever miss a chance to have sex or appear on television" or "don't sleep with anybody whose problems are worse than your own". (On rereading the last sentence I became worried about that one in relation to my own marriage. But, on reflection, at the time my wife and I met it was pretty much a toss-up, so that's all right. Once you are married it ceases to apply. It does, doesn't it?)
This is such a convoluted introduction to an article which is, in the end, going to be about fixing a puncture that it reminds me of one of the things that, in a perverse sort of way, I love about Alistair Cooke, who celebrated his 90th birthday last week. I only catch his Letter from America by chance, stuck in a traffic jam somewhere, and it always seems to begin something like this (in order to capture the style, count silently to three after each full stop and to two and a half after most commas):
"Good evening. Many years ago, in the mid- western town of Providence Falls, a young boy walked into a drug store and asked for a soda. For the benefit of British listeners, I should perhaps explain that a drug store . . ." This story will finally come to a close with another epic pause. "The boy's name was Paul McDougall Walter Fortescue Disney, better known, to cinema-goers, and indeed to much of the world that does not attend cinema performances, as Walt Disney, pioneer of cartoon films and creator of the multifarious theme parks, to use the current fashionable phrase."
Get to the bloody point, I yell, banging my head against the steering wheel. As something of a toiler in the vineyard of circumlocution myself, I can only salute the achievement of a man who, week in, week out, makes a molehill out of something that is very much smaller than a molehill. (I was going to say "makes a molehill out of an anthill" which has a nice rhythm to it, but then remembered that an anthill is actually much bigger than a molehill, so didn't.)
I studied English literature, so I didn't even learn how to do anything during my formal education. Except for one thing. At one point I had to do a course on "old handwriting" (seriously) and I learnt how to read secretary hand, which is the curious form of writing that most Elizabethans (including Shakespeare) used. So, if you ever come across an Elizabethan manuscript that needs transcribing, then I'm your man, or rather would have been, since I forgot it all a week after the course finished.
But now, finally, I've learnt something. A couple of weeks ago I was taught how to fix a bike puncture. As you all probably know, it's dead easy, and there is one weirdly satisfying bit of it. You insert this thing (which I now know is called a tyre iron, and which I also know isn't made of iron) under the tyre and then you push it round and it removes the tyre from inside the rim as easily as if you were peeling a banana.
My wife's bike had a puncture and it felt very satisfying to do all that stuff (which seems to conjure home counties suburbia circa 1930) with the chalk, the sandpaper, the rubber glue, the patches and then use my tyre iron to get the tyre back on. Then I got another chance to do it because the tyre went flat again instantly. Then it went flat again and I had to get a bowl of water, the way you're really meant to, and I discovered another hole. I saved the five pounds the bike shop round the corner charges and it only took an hour and three-quarters.
Let me quote from the section in Richard's Bicycle Book on maintenance and repair: "Eventually, you will find that increased riding pleasure is not just a reward for doing your own maintenance, the mechanical sensitivity itself becomes part of the riding pleasure."
Based on my own experience fixing a puncture, I would rephrase that slightly. If I moved on to actually doing mechanical work on the gears and brakes, I suspect the result would be a room for the rest of my life in Stoke Mandeville, being fed through a tube and writing this column with my chin.