So yer big french pushbike sportsday. Having run away from the London ‘Lympics, you may be surprised to learn I was back in Yorkshire for it. The explanation is simple – it went through the village I grew up in twice, a unique distinction. As our old neighbour’s slogan goes, so good it’s coming twice. And despite being a Huge Event, as an entirely temporary and nomadic project, it’s hard to use it as a pretext to knock down a council estate.
My biggest impression was a sort of weird carnival of mobility. Bicycles, motor vehicles, and aircraft appeared in a very brief period of historical time, very close together and a surprisingly long while after the emergence of steam power. The cliché example would be that the French newspaper that sponsored the first Tour was called L’Auto and then retitled itself as L’Équipe. The link with the growing mass media ought to be obvious. The experience on the days literally smelled of diesel, with the waves of publicity vehicles, motorbike cops from all over the country, gendarmes, incredibly low-flying media helicopters, Garde Republicaine troopers from the French president’s security detachment, and such. It’s surprising how many big engines, indeed helo turboshaft engines, are needed to keep up with some guys on bikes.
Unlike football, say, the geographical scale of the Tour is far more than you can appreciate directly as a spectator. They hammer by and then they’re gone. Much of the driving about by all sorts of officials in big cars and distributors of samples seems to be an effort to take your mind off this. But this is part of the point. It was originally designed as an Edwardian nation-building project, something that would get people to take part in the imagined community known as France. It’s still very much like that. In fact, the pain in the arse of closing roads in a motorised society even helps. Putting it on requires a really big social mobilisation to organise it all; you know it does when your neighbour’s on the committee. In many ways, the actual race is an excuse for the participation.
And this was about the first project I can remember that was organised on a Yorkshire-wide basis. The participation was very real, not least because all the people like me who had obviously headed back up north. We literally danced in the streets of Addingham, or at least the Swan pub car park, which has front doors onto it. That’s good enough for me. This sort of mobilisation, of course, tends to obscure or postpone important conflicts and divisions, which is probably why I was openly cheering Chris Froome’s epic dash through Sheffield in the shirt of Team…Sky. Oy.
That said, folk yelled “South Yorkshire Mass Murderer” at their contribution to the route escort, roidy-looking guys in Iraq-merc shirts and BMW 4x4s doing nothing of obvious use, so don’t think we’re going soft. The police festival was something else – West Yorkshire looking astonished at people smiling, and trying to ride their motorbikes as if for a royal funeral, the national escort group showing off a little, and the French cops (I counted three varieties of French cops) doing their hell on wheels act.
Let’s hold that thought, though – the first Yorkshire-wide project in years. There seems to be a push on. Here’s York Council leader James Alexander calling for “devolution”. George Osborne, of all people, thinks the trans-Pennine railway needs money and Labour-leaning trainhead Paul Salveson comments. Wakefield council leader Peter Box wants independence for Yorkshire, although I think he’s trolling. The physical reality of this is that Box is the chairman of the West Yorkshire combined authority, which is a bit like the West Riding in that it integrates Leeds, Bradford, Wakey, and Kirklees councils. Box is the chair presumably because Wakefield is the historic capital. There’s even a movement. Even Clegg has been offering warm words, although fuck him. Labour people are making the running across these efforts, although in another sense the party likes the idea of a bigger Northern structure.
I’ve blogged before that devolution seemed to work very well for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and London in the sense that they were the only regions not to see falling real median incomes. That sounds good, although London was a case of standing outside when it rained money. The Vale of York ‘kippers sound worse. Also, Uncle Jimmy would have been on this like the proverbial tramp on chips.