Biking And Nothingness: a tour of East London

The following post is an account of an event called Philosophy by Bicycle, run by the excellent School Of Life (, a ‘doorstep adventure’ which I did a while back.

‘There are some pitifully soft tyres out there,’ says Jack, brandishing a high pressure pump and threatening to ‘have a quiet word’ in the ears of the guilty later on. Bikes propped in the courtyard, we are inside the Tour de Ville at 8.30 on Saturday morning, a vintage bike shop-cum-café in deepest Hackney. I’m drinking my third expresso and chomping on an apple Danish the size of my handlebar.

‘Thinking consumes as many calories as cycling’, says Jack, urging us to snack at every opportunity during our ‘doorstep adventure’ around the hidden cycle-ways of East London, scheduled to cover 25 miles and ‘as many key thinkers’ in a day.

Ooh, aah, Kant-ona

Like most of my 20 companions I see myself as more of a cyclist than a philosopher. In my youth, though, I did spend a lot of time staring at the sea and listening to early 1970s concept albums. I believe I was considered deep in some quarters. A flirtation with Buddhism was shelved after university in favour of child rearing, work commitments and Manchester United. Now I’m more Cantona than Kant, but I’ve hit mid-life and the big questions loom large once more. It’s time to get back in the saddle.

Our mentors are Jack Thurston, presenter of the Bike Show on Resonance FM, and philosophy lecturer and writer Nigel Warburton. Tyres now rock hard , we set off. First stop is Victoria Park. We gather under a plane tree to discuss the first topic, the Self. Nigel invites us to consider our bike as a metaphor of personal identity. I’ve changed the break pads, tyres, inner tubes and chain. What if I replaced the frame itself? Would I still be riding the same bike as the one I bought? Is there an essential ‘bikeness’ that transcends the sum of all the parts? Is that what some people call the soul?

It’s a bit early doors for this to be honest, but we do our best. Memory, we decide, is the essential thread of human identity. Without memory there is no narrative linking all the changing parts together. John Locke is mentioned and there’s something about Louis Bunuel. And Aristotle, who, I seem to recall, was a bugger for the bottle.

Jung at heart

We head off through the Lee Valley and along the Greenway cycle path. West Ham, Plaistow, Beckton…According to Carl Jung, on his deathbed, ‘the answer lies in the East’, though I’m not sure he had Canning Town in mind. Jack gives a short history talk at the Temple of Sewage, a kitsch ‘Oriental palace’ built in 1868 ‘to take the shit out of London’ –  it’s near the original Big Brother house, built more recently to bring the shit back into London.

Our next stop is Royal Albert Dock, where we refuel on coffee, apples and chocolate. Squatting on a patch of grass, the thunder of planes taking of from City Airport next door, we discuss the idea of space, and how we are affected by our environment. Nigel shares the theories of Gaston Bachelard. Our first house becomes a source of emotionally charged imagery that we revisit in our dreams and carry into every experience. But is it ever possible to feel truly at home in the outside world? Erno Goldfinger is also name-checked, apparently a modernist architect as well as the inspiration for a Bond villain, and Robert M Pirsig, Zen novelist and hero of my adolescence. Names and ideas wash pleasantly over me in the sunshine. Back on the route, Nigel wants us to become aware of how the sense of space on a bike is different from being in a car: ‘You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.’

The perfect bike ride

On through the Cyprus DLR station, across the Woolwich Ferry, and down to the Thames Barrier. Lunch at a waterside boozer in Charlton is followed by the next session on ‘bliss’. Nigel invites us to conduct a thought experiment. We are to imagine a virtual reality simulator, giving us the illusion of a perfect bike ride that would leave us feeling completely blissed out. ‘Johnny Dep or Penelope Cruz or whoever you like can be there,’ says Nigel. You can program in the occasional virtual puncture if you want, just by way of contrast.  After a while you completely forget it’s not real. The question is, would you plug in for life? The group consensus is no. People want actual experience, not just a simulation. Jeremy Bentham is wrong. We don’t just want pleasure, whether it be ‘push-pin or poetry’. We want stuff like freedom and authenticity. Sod you Jeremy.

Late afternoon sluggishness kicks in. Sunshine, a belly full of scampi and chips, an  unwise lunchtime pint. My legs are fine but, philosophically, I’m a tad saddle sore and could do with a doze. Secretly, I quite like the idea of being plugged into some kind of orgasmatron, like Woody Allen in Sleeper. Maybe I’m not that deep after all.

Fear and loathing on the Isle of Dogs

We continue along the river towards Greenwich and, back in the real world, the group suffers the first of two punctures. A posse of feral teenagers on bikes overtakes us, yodelling with menace. A rival school of cycling philosophers perhaps – those Young Hegelians are a right bunch of scallies. We head down into the foot tunnel taking us back under the Thames. A sign warns ‘No cycling, no loitering, no spitting, no animal fouling…’ Dismounting, we troop in single file through the Stygian gloom, then emerge blinking into the light.

We pootle on towards the Isle of Dogs and Millwall, past the sulphurous smell of a chemical factory and gather in a nearby park to discuss the fear of death. Now this is my idea of a day out. Who wants the sheer tedium of immortality? It would be like a bike ride without an end. Death, like love, says Nigel, makes life worth living. And in any case, as Epicurus says, we never actually experience being dead: ‘When we are there, death is not, and when death is there, we are not.’  That’s death sorted then.

Condemned to be free

I’m getting my second philosophical wind now and we’re on the last leg over the Limehouse Cut and into Mile End. The evening sun sparkles on the Regent’s Canal as we dodge the joggers and pushchairs back along the towpath to Victoria Park. Back under the plane tree Nigel winds up with a discussion on choice. A piece of fruit falls from the tree onto his head and someone calls out ‘Eureka!’ Cyclists love freedom, that’s why we ignore red lights, and the bike is often a symbol of liberation in culture. According to Nigel our patron saint should be Jean-Paul Sartre. The world sometimes gangs up on us – this is the despair of the human condition. But although we can’t stop the puncture happening, we are free to choose how we react to the puncture – ‘you didn’t see me put those tacks under your wheels before did you?’ adds Nigel.

This is not to be confused with crude positive thinking – that’s for wimps. Sartre believes we are ‘condemned to be free’, whether we like it or not. We have far more freedom than we think most of the time and its ‘bad faith’ to deny this and blame others. We have to take responsibility for all our choices. It’s tough, but ultimately we are all free to choose our own routes through life. We nod sagely, mount our bikes, and go on our separate ways.

Note: The details of this route (along with 35 other corkers) are included in the excellent Lost Lanes: 36 Glorious Bike Rides in Southern England, written by Jack Thurston and published in 2013:

1 thought on “Biking And Nothingness: a tour of East London

  1. A charming account of a memorable day. A shame we never got to do it again. On the temple of sewerage / Big Brother connection, it’s not that it’s near the Big Brother house, it’s that London’s sewerage system (along which we we riding, in the form of the northern outfall pipe) was designed by Joseph Bazalgette, great-great-grandather of Peter Bazalgette, who devised the Big Brother TV format.

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