Published at www. booksellers.co.nz
45-year-old Wellington writer David Coventry hadn’t really seriously written before. He had one book in his desk drawer – his ‘learning to write’ exercise from his Uni days – so writing a novel was probably not on the cards. But then an email arrived that set the wheels spinning: The Invisible Mile is the result.
Coventry was a researcher at the Film Archive. He received a request for footage on Harry Watson* and like you and I, he was scratching his head. Sorry, who? A quick Wiki trace revealed something that caught his imagination. Watson was a Kiwi rider who competed in the first English-speaking Tour de France team in 1928 – which also included legendary Aussie cyclists Hubert Opperman, Percy Osborne and Ernie Bainbridge. The French press called him “The Priest”. Back in the ‘20’s bikes were crude machines; no lights, brakes “like glass”.
Recently, Coventry was on the radio, talking of his fascination with the link between religion and sport, and that’s one theme that peeks through in the book, almost inevitably. Kiwis can’t help their religious fanaticism to particular codes. While he chose not to get caught up in the technical, he could certainly call family, for many tales of endurance (his sister is currently solo-cycling across the USA) and pain, for literary embellishments. And he loves sport. Still, at writing, Coventry felt he knew very little of the Tour, as did most Kiwis in the 1920’s -there was no ESPN to call on back then. But as he researched, the fragments were becoming more and more compelling: sport, religion, memory.
So The Invisible Mile became a re-imagining of that gruelling 1928 race. The men raced on 5476 kilometres of rough roads – that was one and a half times the length of today’s race. The story is told through the eyes of an imaginary fifth rider, allowing Coventry the freedom to write in the style of a memoir, as reportage of a fictitious experience. Of course, without any remaining documentation, many details will be impossible to correlate. But it’s the atmosphere and ‘soul’ of the experience which is the point that he is drawing out. Literal and metaphorical are inextricably plaited together.
A common theme of the novel is the battle with fatigue that mentally and physically taxes each rider to their most extreme limits. That fatigue was not imagined. About two months near the end of his completed manuscript, Coventry himself contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME. Even reading was out of the question. It was all he could do to snatch 10 minutes of lucidity to eke out a few lines.
That protracted experience found its way onto the page. There’s definitely some dazed moments of blind endurance and there are parallels between the endless exhaustion of rider and writer. The rider’s extreme physical stress is clearly elucidated as, fuelled by cocaine and opium, Coventry’s hero endures the appalling pain of non-stop pedaling. His only relief is in his relationship with a female supporter he picks up en route. The rider’s fight against the elements and other teams become the quest. And with a former WWI pilot-brother and a deceased sister, the personal journey of the rider through the battlefields of post-war France is a true, and universal, mission in understanding.The journey to defeat individual demons becomes the race.
Coventry’s work is as compelling as a good documentary, with enough cinematics to really put you in the saddle. His own mind games provide some layers and do well to provide the inner challenges of the long arduous toil those pioneers must have faced. It’s often a grim read, a dry outer body experience, but extremely satisfying.
Featured in Rip It Up – August 2014
Comedian Bill Bailey has to take his phone calls from his office because the racket from his ever growing menagerie of exotic creatures is to much a distraction. “It’s always the same. Soon as the phone goes the Dingos start howling. They feel they’re territory is being threaten by some kind of telephonic being, perhaps. And then the Parrots all start up, squawkin’ and carrying on. It tends to be a bit distracting, so it’s quieter in the office. It’s like we’ve about run out of room in our West London house for all these animals! Doctor Dolittle will need to sail to darkest Peru, I fear, in search of escape.”
Hang on, wait a minute. Did you say Dingo’s? “Ah, yes,” replies Bailey in his measured, faintly Cockney accent, “But not the baby-worrying kind. These are Indonesian Dingos. They are a lot smaller, more slender that their Aussie version – They ‘re a cousin, same DNA. They probably trotted over a land bridge one, dropped down and became marooned on the Indonesian archipelago.” He tells me that these were dogs rescued from the pound whilst Bailey was in Indonesian filming. Sneaking them through customs must have been a mission? “Yeah. Tell them to stay very quiet (Laughs). The law here has become much more expedient… not the six month quarantine that you used to have…it’s down to a few days, if you have the right paper work on this.”
This all came about from a recent trip in search of the real ‘Origin of the Species’. “Yes, between the last time I was in New Zealand and now (he plans to be back in September) I spent a large part of that time working on a documentary about Alfred Russell Wallace, who was a Victorian botanist, explorer, biologist, evolutionary originator. He was a younger contemporary of Darwin. He travelled through Indonesia, Malaysia and what was Borneo and wrote in a wide variety of scientific journals. He came up with a scientific theory of evolution, independent of Charles Darwin.” Bailey’s referring to Bailey’s Jungle Hero – a two part documentary about naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that was part doco, part mad Englishman-travelogue. All very incredible but surely we’d know that Darwin didn’t develop his theories in isolation? “All this I found out in a bird watching guide called ‘The Birds of Wallacia (the English arrogant name for parts of Indonesia). That started me down the path of years of research: of obsession. All culminating in this TV show (Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero), unveiling his portrait in the Natural History Museum and getting a bronze statue of him erected in the Darwin gardens, outside.” “What’s interesting about Darwin’s release of the theory was not so much offending the church or his (devoutly religious ) wife… it’s more interesting than that….he was worried about getting his facts right and being also there wasn’t really a universal outcry. People were hungry for a bit of change. The opposition from the church was only one faction. The church had been in charge for so long, people were sick of it. As early as 1816 there was a comedy review that suggested that we might be evolved from orang-utans…the idea had been around for a long time and they were sort of ready for it. Of course all the modernist crazies and colonists ended up in Aotearoa – escaping the old world. “Yes, (adopting a Python-esque colonial voice) let’s high tail it to our beautiful Utopia in the South (NZ).” Which dovetails nicely with Bailey’s new show: Limboland. ‘It’s a place of transition, between the truth and reality. It came about because I realised that a lot of stories in the show started to coerce around this central theme of things not quite being what they seem. Things we once revered to be stolid and impeachable are now revealed to be flawed and fickle. What can we believe? Who can we trust? I think it’s also a sense of reflection, looking back to child hood and looking at what we thought in childhood and how things turned out. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a state of weakness, as we get older (laughs).”
Comedy, even to the youngest can only work if a number of rules and assumptions are accepted. Mr Bean, for example, works because every idea and theme is pretty much based around universal concepts such as Christmas. Bailey, as well does this. Particularly with music, where he reworks well known tunes, for comedic effect. “In the show I, for instance, rewrite ‘Happy Birthday’, the most familiar song on the planet. I made it more, shall we say, ‘downbeat’, given it lower expectations. It came about when I talked to a music lawyer and it’s still in copy write. If you sing it live, you should pay royalties. So I was motivated to write my own, to gift to the world, to use without recourse to pay performance rights.” Bailey is well known for his musical content, being a gifted performer. But sadly, he won’t be bringing his 7 headed guitar Down Under this time around. “I’d never get it on the plane.” He will however be evolving some other instruments, including a six string made for him out of a real bible. Fittingly, evolution, religion and travel in the name of history vs comedy all seem to drive Bailey on. Here’s hoping he doesn’t try to adopt any native birds while he’s down here – he’s rather partial to Keas, apparently. I just want to see a parrot eat a car. What a brilliant bird – beautiful plumage!”