I had the opportunity to interview Thomas Cohen for the Quietus recently. After some great feedback I’m gonna go ahead and say I’m really proud of it, because everyone seems to have got the impression of him that I was aiming for: mainly that he was extremely generous.
I’ve been doing a couple of days a week at Cooler, which is an awesome website about actions sports for women. They gave me the opportunity to write a piece that I’ve wanted to pen for a very long time – The Women of London Bike Polo.
Many thanks to Nik, Fuchsia and Maddie for their time (and their poses), and to the LHBPA for making me feel like part of the family for the last few years, despite the fact I’ve only played polo, like, twice.
For uni. It’s over now so you cannae go see it but you can enjoy my words. Hopefully.
Sometimes you’re thankful when the artist assumes you’re an idiot. Tess Berry-Hart, the playwright behind Sochi 2014, has mercifully provided a definition of verbatim theatre in the programme for us luddites who missed the format’s fashionable peak in 2011. Knowing that the script is compiled from interview extracts, written sources and media commentary allows the audience to soak up the history lesson in Russian gay rights, neatly centred around the current Olympic occupation, with a self-satisfied smirk.
And it certainly is a lesson. The fact that being gay was only decriminalised in Russia in 1993 is something we should have known. The fact that Russia was ostracised while the West swam in acid and sexual liberation seems obvious, but Stephanie Beattie, playing a journalist, reminds us with a jolt: “While you guys were having the 60s and 70s, us guys were having the Soviet Union.”
There are plenty of lines in this vein – excellent summations of attitudes, histories and mindsets. In particular an exchange between activist Peter Tatchell and a group of anti-gay protesters makes my blood run as cold as the bobsleigh track: when Tatchell asks why they are angry at gay people and not the corrupt government, the protestors reply: “They’re easy! We can get them. We can’t get the others.”
The cast of five scurry around the tiny pub space in brightly coloured tracksuits, moving rapidly from one instance of injustice to the next. Adam Venus is excellent glue for such a high-paced production in his portrayal of imposing and authoritative figures, from Putin himself to a CNN anchor. A scene juxtaposing voices from the Russian establishment and apolitical organisations like the IOC with past proclamations about the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany is deftly executed. With any less care it would have descended into the theatrical equivalent of an internet comment thread, but the script cleverly examines its own artifice with flair.
There are also attempts to engage with the problematic elements of the anti-Russia protests. Stephen Fry’s documentary fodder, masquerading as a moral crusade to boycott the Winter Games, becomes a trope of impotence. But then we’re told that a petition, which Fry retweeted, actually succeeded in freeing Russian LGBQT activist and asylum seeker Ira Putilova from a detention centre in the UK. Her story is a heartening one, but it’s clear that the tweets and media attention guilted the British government into releasing her. The play’s claustrophobic structure means this scene comes minutes after we’ve witnessed a teenager be urinated on by those trying to cleanse him of his sexuality – something Putin has instructed his institutions to permit via turning a blind eye. The point is made that all governments are fallible and easily swayed, it’s only the direction of the pendulum’s swing that divides East and West.
Sochi 2014, which defies its small venue and smaller budget with gusto, sometimes works too hard on keeping arguments water-tight when it should be fleshing out characters. But this piece of theatre does its job well. It not only entertains and educates, but shines a light on the LGBQT residents of Russia in the hope of prolonging the media coverage for a little longer. Let’s hope it helps keep the vulnerable out of total darkness.
Interview with the glorious Ryan from Oak cycles for a university assignment (I was asked to write it for the Guardian’s now defunct ‘A working life‘ section). It’s a bit cheesy but he’s such a babe I don’t care. Find out more about Oak here.
Ryan McCaig loves bicycles. He thinks they are beautiful, personal and intensely practical. It’s brilliant to hear a man, wearing overalls and brandishing a blowtorch, talk about his passion with equal measures of frankness and romance.
“You can make a chair and sit on it. You can make good art, put it in a gallery and talk about it. But when you make a bicycle, you can take it and ride it around the world, or carry heavy loads, or just ride it to work every day. It’s got such potential.”
McCaig, 30, builds custom bicycle frames in a tiny workshop in Hackney Wick. He’s originally from Canada but has lived in London for six years. When I arrive he is patiently examining a stainless steel bike frame held in a homemade clamp that can move in every direction. The frame pirouettes at the lightest touch.
He calls the operation Oak Cycles. On the shelf there’s a queue of cardboard boxes filled with steel tubes, each with a name scrawled on it representing someone waiting for a bicycle.
How did it all begin?
“I was going to cycle around the world but I couldn’t find anyone that was making the bike that I wanted for the trip. So I set about reading a bunch of books and buying tools. And I made a bike frame. That was five years ago now.”
How was the trip? “We didn’t make it the whole way around the world – it got really cold in Turkey so we turned right and headed for Africa instead.”
I’m unsure how a man who cycled to Africa can spend his days in this small room. “I once went hiking with a guy who told me ‘You need something. You can’t just be an aloof, hitchhiking, travelling bum the rest of your life.’ That stuck with me.”
McCaig seems far from an aloof bum. His skill set is ever expanding. He describes joining the metal tubes together by brazing – a process that looks like welding but with a softer glow. “I heat the two parent materials so they are able to accept the filler material brass. A molecular bond happens which is very strong.”
Putting the pieces together is only a small part of the job. McCaig’s customers are, generally, demanding middle-aged men with bachelor lifestyles. They’re men who have loved bikes their whole lives, but never quite found one that fits perfectly. McCaig likens it to when a man discovers, after years of buying their suits from M&S, just how good Savile Row tailoring feels.
But despite the fact that most of his customers already have ten or more bicycles, even the most Lycra-clad patron doesn’t share McCaig’s technical vocabulary.
“People ask for their bike to be ‘comfortable’ and ‘durable’. I have to turn those words into a functional form with angles, geometry, tube specifications, diameters and wall thicknesses. Those technical fabrication aspects dictate how the bike rides. But people just know they want a bike to be, you know, red.”
There can’t be many people making frames in this way, on this small a scale? “There was something like 50 frame builders in London in the 1950s, but when I was looking to learn there was just one.”
“So I taught myself. I made 10 bikes for 10 friends at the cost of materials. That was 100 hours per bicycle – 1000 hours total. I decided; that would be my own apprenticeship.”
A lot of his time is spent looking at steel. From the first consultation with the customer to the final product, the process takes a year. I ask if he’s ever sad to see the bikes leave.
“Artists will talk about how if you spend time with an inanimate object you grow attached to it and it’s hard to let it go. I’m not saying I’m an artist of course. But that stainless steel bike I was looking at when you came in, that has another 16 hours of work in it and I’ve already put 100 hours into it. If you’ve ever stared at one piece of material for 100 hours… there’s definitely an attachment.”
The commitment of a craftsman like McCaig seems baffling to the layman. He has always tinkered with objects, concocting structures in his uncle’s Ottawa garage as a teenager.
“I say this all happened in the last few years, but I first made a bike when I was 16. It was a penny-farthing. It was awesome; a bunch of old BMX bikes that I stuck together. I only had an angle grinder and a TIG welder. It was a bit of a disaster, but I just went for it.”
Things are no longer disastrous. Every customer so far, he says, has been a happy one. His work is, as we speak, conquering roads all over the world. Next month there will be four Oak bikes riding around South America simultaneously.
“We’re going to try and figure out a way they can meet up and take a photo. Touring bikes is what I love to do, so it’s pretty cool.”
He may not have made it around the globe himself, but his work most certainly has.
Earlier this year I compiled the copy and images for Undiscovered London’s online guide to the city. It’s now live and looks brilliant. Thanks to everyone who gave me their recommendations and thanks to UL for paying me to eat some incredible food!