“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower.”
Robert M. Pirsig
Often I find myself sleepless at midnight, waking up in the dead of morning, or walking along the windswept coast; on holiday of all things, trying my hardest to summon up an explanation to the WHY of my mechanics, always failing, always grasping to find words good enough to communicate that pulling wrenches isn’t just… well, pulling wrenches… in our case, it’s a life choice.
I’m not talking about that “All I want to do is ride bikes” life choice, although that certainly crosses my mind quite often and if I’d have been serious about that from the start then I’d have aimed at becoming a professional paid rider. But society doesn’t pay you to pootle around on your touring bike drinking beer and coffee or ride centuries just for the hell of it whilst gorging yourself on cake, so that option’s always been out, and I’m quite happy with it that way.
Instead Roll for the Soul’s mechanics spend their days tinkering, working up a sweat and getting greasy in the workshop, all the while ruminating on the bigger questions that life poses to them: Where the hell did that small springy bit go? What does it all mean? Why is the world messed up and how can we make a difference?
There’s an in joke that you can’t work here unless you wear black or have tattoos and piercings (apart from Dave the barista, we let him in because he’s extra nice… though he does have a black leather jacket). It might be safe to say that we’re all black-clad anarchists at heart – although I, Ryan, am happy to put forth my opinion that Anarchy, as a political school of thought, needs a serious make over and re-branding effort – and that we fix bikes (or cook) for a living because it’s a conscious, spiritual and political decision.
Our staff come from a diverse set of backgrounds; street theatre directors, supermarket managers, sustainability advocates and researchers, activists, squatters, school leavers through to failed Master’s students right ‘up’ to PhDs (there’s nothing to say it’s hierarchical!), commune and on-site dwellers, co-op housing, and private home owners; many of those all mixed up in one or more people over time. We are, after all, a varied bunch.
But what ties us together is a wish to see positive change in the world, to make a difference and to not sully our souls doing something that doesn’t contribute to our community. And so, we fix bikes.
I don’t need to talk about the positive economic, ecological, health and social differences that one’s decision to ride a bike makes. That’s why we want more people riding more bikes, but it’s not why we wrench. We wrench because we appreciate and wish to practice three things: simplicity, quality and craftsmanship.
I’m willing to bet we may be the most philosophical bunch of grease monkeys you’ll chance to meet in Bristol. I lived in a horsebox on the Isle of Man once. It was my job to cut down a couple of acres of gorse in the midst of winter and chop logs for the people who provided me shelter and food in return. It was all very ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’. Henry D. Thoreau wrote:
“As for the complex ways of living, I love them not, however much I practice them. In as many places as possible, I will get my feet down to the earth”.
[Journal, 22 October 1853]
And I believe that’s one of the things that each of us is trying to achieve. Fixing bikes for a fair price, earning a fair living wage, and getting the occasional ride in is, in its own little way, ‘getting our feet down to earth’. A bike, especially a broken one, will very quickly get you grounded.
‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ doesn’t really have much to do with either of its eponymous subject matters but is a life changing book that I urge you to read and reflect upon seriously. Pirsig, who we started this newsletter with, has a lot to say on the issue of ‘stuckness’. Focusing on a seized bolt he demonstrates how simple problems can become seemingly insurmountable and throw your thinking out of kilter and give rise to a lack of true, simple, focus on the job at hand.
“The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is […] this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. [S]he has to care!”
“….the basic fault that underlies the problem of stuckness is traditional rationality’s insistence upon “objectivity,” a doctrine that there is a divided reality of subject and object. [...] “You are the mechanic. There is the motorcycle. You are forever apart from one another. You do this to it. You do that to it. These will be the results.”
This eternally dualistic subject-object way of approaching the motorcycle sounds right to us because we’re used to it. But it’s not right. It’s always been an artificial interpretation superimposed on reality. It’s never been reality itself. When this duality is completely accepted a certain nondivided relationship between the mechanic and motorcycle, a craftsmanlike feeling for the work, is destroyed.
When traditional rationality divides the world into subjects and objects it shuts out Quality, and when you’re really stuck it’s not any subjects or objects that tells you where you ought to go, it’s Quality.”
If you don’t care then it is Quality that suffers. The presence of care and Quality within the individual is what craftsmanship IS. Pirisg purposefully capitalises his metaphysical Quality; arguing that Quality in itself is the basic building block of the world. Each and every one of us has Quality within us innately and one will still approach a lower case quality machine with upper case Quality if they care. And it is precisely this, precisely because we care, that we wrench. To do so otherwise would make no sense. To do so otherwise would be dishonest. To do so otherwise would not fulfil our souls.
“And that’s it / you treat each job like it’s special /
Care about your work / and be a professional /
There’s a right way to go about your job / and a wrong one /
I find this way is much better in the long run /
It ain’t about the dollar / or trying to go fast /
Unless you take pride in what you’re doing / it won’t last /
Craftsmanship / is a quality that some lack /
You got to give people a reason / for them to come back”
(Buck 65 ‘Craftsmanship’)
Offer Details: In celebration of Quality we are offering 20% off all workshop labour prices. Simply email, phone or visit the workshop mentioning this article to book your bike in and ask any questions. Quotes for work are always free. Workshop prices can be found here.
OFFER ENDS FRI 7th DEC! SUBJECT TO DIARY AVAILABILITY
Su Sokol is cyclist, activist and novelist based in Montreal and originally from New York. On Nov 27 she’ll be at Roll for the Soul reading from her recent novel Cycling to Asylum. Mike White, co-editor of Boneshaker Magazine, will introduce passages from the novel and will join Su (and you!) in discussion of conditions for urban cyclists in cities like Bristol.