Back in the 1908s Talking Heads front man (and writer and artist) David Byrne started to use the bicycle as his primary means of transportation, not only when at home in New York, but when overseas either when touring or for gallery engagements. He bought a folding bicycle which he would stow in his suitcase re-assembling it when he reached his destination. "Bicycle Diaries" is a collection of nine essays, adapted from diary entries, which loosely describe some of his experiences combined with various musings on the nature of today's cities and the changes that could be made to make them better places in which to live and work, and the art scene in some of the cities he has visited . In essence the content is as eclectic as the man himself. I've long been a fan of David Byrne and I'm a keen cyclist. What's not to like?
On the whole I found "Bicycle Diaries" to be a thought provoking and entertaining read even if Byrne does occasionally get bogged down in detail. Partly my opinion is shaped by the level of interest I have in the various places that Byrne describes. I was disappointed by the section on Manila which I found overworked, because I find that a less appealing destination than Istanbul, on which city he is less detailed. I found the section on Berlin highly entertaining not just because it was a city that I wished to visit myself, but because I was interested in places such as the Stasi Museum wihich he fleetingly describes. The essay on Buenos Aires is as entertaining a piece of travel writing as any I have read.
This is no travelogue or, indeed, collection of excerpts thereof. If a travel writer or a cycling writer had tackled this book it would have been very different. Byrne is a firm advocate of urban cycling but this is not the main focus of the book and readers hoping for a treatise on urban cycling will feel short-changed. While it could be argued that "Bicycle Diaries" suffers from a lack of direction, I enjoyed how Byrne darts around all kinds of ideas and how this style allows you to dip in and out of the book. With thoughts on politics, globalisation, music, fashion and contemporary art, this is a look at our cities from street level and the saddle of a bicycle provides a rather refreshing viewpoint from which to appraise them.
In truth "Bicycle Diaries" is barely about cycling at all but the activity provides a convenient window through which Byrne views the world and the people that inhabit it. From time to time you get the sense that his thoughts are just whatever is coursing through his mind at the time he's cycling rather, not even thrown up by the ride. It didn't matter to me; I found what Byrne hs to say quite fascinating and much more accessible than I'd anticpated. I'd come to the book with an idea of David Byrne being this uber-cool, super sophisticated and highly intelligent artist - which of course he is - but his laid back style is easy to get along with.
I paticularly enjoyed the way that Byrne tends to avod the mainstream but still finds ways of capturing the essence of a place. In his essay on Istanbul - I'd give David Byrne a knighthood for daring to cycle in that metropolis regardless of the wonderful way he writes about the place - he manages to conjure up a really brilliant portrait of the city in a single paragraph:
"I pass cafes full of people intensely playing backgammon or smoking hookahs. I get some designer knock offs at a shoe store.The minarets of the mosque make handy landmarks. I love this city. I love its physical location - bounded by water, dispersed across three landmasses, one of which is where Asia begins. Its way of life, which seems Mediterranean, cosmopolitan, and yet tinged by the deep history of the Middle East, is intoxicating."
In the opening essay "American Cities" Byrne explains how "...machines have won. Lives, city planning, budgets, and time are all focussed around the automobile" and considers how this has come about. His arguments are well reasoned and persuasive. in "Istanbul" he laments the destruction of characterful old buildings in favour of the 'international style': "crap the world over has the imprimatur of quality because it apes, albeit it badly, a prestigious style". Byrne has plenty of criticisms to make but he has suggestions for improvement too.
A keen traveller myself I find Byrne's enthusiasm infectious and I found myself impressed that decades of travel have failed to jade the man ("Sydney. Hooley freaking dooley, what a weird and gorgeous city!") He has an uncanny knack of finding the fascinating in the off beat though his references are frequently obscure causing him to come across as elitist and culturally snobby. Byrne advocates cycling but admits that it isn't practical for everyone; in this respect he demonstrates significant pragmatism though in others he is resolutely steadfast. Personally I grew to like David Byrne more and more as I read but I can see exactly why some readers might be less keen.
I can't deny that my fondness for this book is is heavily influenced by the esteem in which I hold David Byrne. It's a challenging read but only in that it makes you look at the world around you quite differently and in the way it turns conventional travel writing upide down. I would cycle to the ends of the earth with David Byrne, if he would take me with him.