Jon Day is a writer, academic and cyclist. He worked as a bicycle courier in London for several years, and now teaches English Literature at King’s College London. His essays and reviews have appeared in the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, Bookforum, n+1, the White Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the Guardian and Observer and the Telegraph. He writes about art for Apollo, and is a regular book critic for the Financial Times and the Telegraph. He was a judge for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize.
Cyclogeography is an essay about the bicycle in the cultural imagination and a portrait of London seen from the saddle. The bicycle enables us to feel a landscape, rather than just see it, and in the great tradition of the psychogeographers, Day attempts to depart from the map and reclaim the streets of the city.
Introduced by Day, A Twitch Upon the Thread includes contributions from Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Jerome K. Jerome, Arthur Ransome, George Orwell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jonathan Raban, and many more. The best fishing writing is never only about fishing, and the writers collected in this anthology use angling as a way to write about love, loss, faith, and obsession.
1. How does cycling allow you to feel London’s landscape, rather than just see it?
I grew up in London and have always cycled as my primary form of transport (I still don’t have a driver’s license). But it wasn’t until I became cycle courier in my twenties that I realised how fully the bike allowed you to experience a landscape in an intimate, bodily way. Partly this is practical — cycling is physical, connecting you with the terrain you’re travelling through in a way that driving, because it is so isolating, does not. You feel every incline on a bike; every pothole or kerbstone is a potential danger.
But it is also psychological. Urban cyclists are almost unconsciously encouraged to discover the paths of least resistance. You seek sheltered, quiet routes; gentle slopes and backroads, smooth, less-visited tarmac. Getting off the beaten track in this way allows you to build up a map of a landscape which is deeply personal and laden with memories.
2. To what extent did literary walkers influence your exploration of the connection between cycling and writing?
To a huge extent. One of the great things about cycle couriering was the amount of time I had, when sitting around waiting for jobs, to read. I inevitably sought out books about my workplace — London itself — so many of which are written about from the perspective of the walker.
There is a long tradition of literary walkers, which goes back at least to Dickens, or Chaucer, or even further, and then gets supercharged in the late 19th and 20th centuries through the figures of the flaneur, flâneuse, and psychogeographer. I loved and was shaped by this extended literary tradition. But I was also struck by the relative dearth of bicycle-writers in the literary canon, which is something I tried to address in Cyclogeography.
A bike is a good vehicle for writing — you have a seat, and the rhythms of the bike, as the great Paul Fournel has said, are music to a writer’s ear. The only thing that puts the cyclogeographer at a slight disadvantage to the walker is the fact that it’s impossible to write while cycling (maybe some people can do it). I tried using a dictaphone at one point to record impressions and experiences, but felt far too pretentious to keep it up. So most of the book was written at home, revolutions recollected in tranquillity.
3. How did Isaac Walton invent a new hybrid genre of of literature?
Walton was an incredibly compelling figure — a self-made man, devout, mercantile, and upwardly mobile — who also developed a couple of new genres of writing. The first was biography — his lives of great Anglican figures were revolutionary for the care he paid to the personal life and character of his subjects — and the second was this curious, hybrid form of what we might now call ‘nature writing.’
The Compleat Angler, his most successful book, pretends to be a practical guide to the sport. And it certainly is full of tips and advice on how to catch particular species of fish. But it’s also a philosophical defence of fishing as a pastime and, more significant, a coded mediation on God’s glory. Walton wrote it during a period of huge political and theological upheaval in England, and fishing was for him a respite and a retreat. I admire and celebrate the complexity of the book, the way it seeks to do so many things all at once. I love writing like that.
4. Why has fishing been such a popular subject for writers?
Like cycling, fishing has a lot to teach writers about their craft. The great fishing poet Ted Hughes likened the writing of a poem to sitting on a riverbank, watching your float, and waiting for inspiration to strike. There’s something to that. Both activities require patience, and timing. If good preparation is research, then the analogy could be pushed even further: you can only catch something when you’ve spent sufficient time thinking about it, planning, shaping.
I also think there’s something of the reader in the figure of the angler: fishing is about paying careful and minute and attention to your surroundings, your environment and the way you interact with it. It’s a giving yourself over to something larger. That’s what books can do too.
5. Are you currently working on anything that you wish to share with your readers?
I always try to be working on something. Whether or when those somethings might become things: that I don’t know.
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