The Bicycles of Ice and Salt, Jean Atkin
Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2021 £6.50
Vulnerability: then and now
My mother, now in her late 80s, only went abroad as a single person once, hitchhiking round France with two female friends in the early 1950s. Born poor, I didn’t wonder at her personal safety, although I thought her very intrepid.
I am reminded of her adventure when reading Jean Atkin’s evocative new pamphlet The Bicycles of Ice and Salt. The poems describe cycle rides Jean took around France and Spain (both in winter — why Jean, why?). But it isn’t so much the cold climate that drew my attention as the vulnerability of the author and her female companion on the trip they make in the first half of the pamphlet.
In ‘Valuables’, Atkin sets up the world of men they are entering alone in the 1980s:
We bought machines built for men
because the crossbar made them stronger.
We bought small-size men’s clothes
and men’s cycling shoes, because that
was what there was.
Back then, women were not catered for in cycling. So in this poem, the non ‘streetwise pair’ with their man-made bikes in a man’s world ‘had to learn / how to look competent, avoid their eye, / how and when to lie.’
Then in ‘Penknives’, this learning comes into practice when camping one night on the Rhone:
listening to footsteps and voices
more than one man
circling the tent.
We took out our penknives, meant
to use them.
After reading these poems, I spoke with my mother again about her trip, and asked whether she had felt threatened by men. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘We were picked up in their tin-can Citroens, and all were perfect gentleman.’
Modern day enlightenment figures, such as Steven Pinker, believe we’re on a progressive path toward a less violent society. However, Jean Atkin’s journey in the 1980s does differ greatly from my mother’s in the 1950s.
In the light of recent murders and sexual abuse of women, and the advent of the #metoo movement, I wonder whether Pinker is right when it comes to men’s attitudes towards women today.