Getting high on Nelly and nostalgia

The high nelly is a classic Irish bicycle, and being back in the saddle brings back classic Irish memories

Fri, Sep 27, 2013, 01:00

Sunday morning the day woke up all fresh and sparkling, as if someone had coloured the sky in blue and drawn a great big golden sun slap-bang in the centre of the page. I bounded out of bed like a pigtailed six-year-old with a new puppy. I felt like Doris Day after a stiff back-comb, bristling with optimism and good intentions.

The mood didn’t last.

I was late and car-less, and when I looked in the mirror I could have sworn my hairline was receding. More crucially, however, I was out of cat crunchies. Cowed by the ferocity of feline indignation, I was beating an egg for the damn animal in a Pyrex bowl (while she flicked through the Sunday papers with her gritty little tongue) when it occurred to me that I could cycle to my appointment.

With a renewed burst of cheerfulness, I pulled on a hat and knocked on my sister’s yellow front door, to ask her if I could borrow her bicycle. My sister, you see, is the proud owner of a high nelly.

The high nelly, for those of you who have never ridden one through the burning mist on a spring morning, or encountered one on a lonely November boreen, rattling like a skeleton through the furze, is a classic Irish bicycle.

It used to be the bike beloved of postmistresses on their way to devotions, and of the butcher’s frothy daughter on her way to an assignation by a silent lake. Michael Collins, smart chap that he was, even had one custom made in 1919 to weave through Dublin’s murky, conspiratorial streets.


Nelly the relevant
Now, in this eco age, the high nelly is undergoing a bit of a resurgence. As we learn to flare our nostrils at excess, and to sew our own clothes and weave our own felt combinations and go foraging for quail eggs, traditional bikes have become fashionable again. You can buy them all over the place, some with flower patterns painted on them, ivy leaves twisting around the handlebars.

Nelly is back with a vengeance and a newly sprung saddle, and all the lovely girlies and the boyos in paisley print shirts are tootling around in the dappled sunlight, their iPhones and tofu rolls and thermoses of miso soup daintily perched in their plasticised wicker baskets.

Its popularity is no surprise: we embraced “retro” with alarming ferocity in this country. We’re like savages without a god.

I was thinking about our longing for symbols from the past as the miles gently unfurled under the pedals last Sunday morning, cycling along the curve of the shimmering bay, the gulls above my head barking out the odds for a Dublin win.

I was thinking that you can barely walk into a pub in Dublin without stumbling into 1927. Every second hostelry is weighted down by carefully displayed shelves of dusty antiquarian tomes, and hand-beaten copper jugs and porcelain chamber pots, and yellowing posters advertising Gold Flake tobacco or Omo washing powder.

I don’t quite know what these antique accoutrements are meant to make us feel, or how paraphernalia from the blighted past works to encourage us to suck up more West Coast Coolers or call for another Spanish beer with a lump of citrus fruit in it.

I suppose, like actors on a set, we enjoy the idea of playing around in a bygone era when pints were bartered for nasal hair and pigs’ trotters, and gnarled old men stood around swapping stories from the abattoir while their wives crouched in the snug hoping that the frosted-glass window would slide open and they’d be granted another lemonade and porter.


A sanitised kiss
It’s all very well to trade in nostalgia four-square in the knowledge that when you hit the cobbled streets in your six-inch stilettos you can hail a taxi back to your triple-glazed duplex rather than having to ride back up the mountainside on the back of a rasher.

It’s a bit like embracing the high nelly really; it’s a sanitised kiss, safe flirtation with a crumbling past. No one seriously plans to get anywhere too efficiently on nelly’s aching back. How could you? It weighs a ton, it only has three gears (slow, slower, slowest), and children with stabilisers and bony mothers with three-wheeled buggies and terribly important lives to live will easily pass you out (or me, anyway).

But, as the unhurried miles unravel, and you get lost in the back streets of your mind, her true loveliness reveals itself. This is no bicycle; this is mechanised meditation on two solid wheels.

And we’ll all get there in the end, won’t we?

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