I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.
William Morris, 1877
Since the industrial revolution, Western societies have been savouring the joys of mass production. Luxuries, heretofore unaffordable, could be stamped out en masse, lines of workers assembling parts into wholes in monotonous, endless creation. The shear efficiency of the assembly line, of vast mechanisation, of corporate global outsourcing, has meant that a lot of us have been able to afford an entire world of goods. Bicycles are very much part of this system. Global metal extraction, extrusion, construction: twenty five quid handlebars and frames for a couple of hundred.
Bespoked, the UK handmade bike show, is something a little different. The custom frame building world is some way from an egalitarian show of “goods for all”. No, this is exotica, priced at the far end of the social spectrum, a show to give the plebs a chance to ogle at the wonders that their betters are able to produce. There’s a whiff of the Victorian Grand Exhibition: “Here, marvel at our creations!” housed in a grand Kingdom Brunel building. But I know some of the builders. I know that this kind of snobbery isn’t intended, least of all savoured. But the sad truth of our economic reality is that this is a show for the rich.
William Morris is perhaps the best known of the artists and makers who belonged to the Arts and Crafts movement. Concerned with the way industrialism was tearing apart traditional crafts, skills and work, the movement advocated craftsmanship, social equality and dignity. By the end of his life, Morris was nothing less than a revolutionary Socialist, agitating and printing works to incite the working classes. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a counterpoint to an industrial capitalist system that could provide neither dignity nor beautiful things for working people.
Like any self respecting bike geek, I loved wondering around, giggling at the wild paint jobs and admiring the subtle, elegant details. Every now and then you would come across a bike that had been ridden, with some scratches and dirt, and those tell tale signs of life that hint at a rejection of the bicycle-as-art elitism. I met up with great friends from around the country and sensed again the sprawling cycling community of friendly, open riders.
Folk all around the world are crying out for a different model of society that is simpler, gentler, more local. We know, deep down or raging at the surface, that buying another piece of mass-produced tat is doing neither us nor the industrial wench who built it much good. But ultimately, Bespoked, like the Arts and Crafts Movement, does not really offer us an alternative, not yet. As there were only a few who could afford a dining room’s worth of Morris’ hand printed wallpaper, so only a select portion of us can afford some bespoke steel craftsmanship from a worthy, local, empowered frame builder.
There are glimmers of other options. The Bicycle Academy of course hints at a world where we can all learn to build our own bikes, wresting production from corporate colossi. My friend Ryan dreams of a framebuiding hack space, flux and welding rods for all. But we’re not there yet.
Still all that glimmers needs gold. And lots of it.