Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Flying Scotsman, Graeme Obree (2003)

Birlinn 1 84158 283 2 246pp £9.99

Obree’s story is well-known – much of it is told on another article on this site. He was a maverick time trailist from Ayrshire, who built his own bike using some discarded components, and went on to take the world hour record and twice win the world pursuit championship.

There is certainly some interest in the detail of how this happened – his lonely childhood, failed business ventures and inability to settle down to a college course. The genesis and execution of the bicycles that he made, and the development of his unique ski-tuck and superman riding positions too merit a close look.

What really makes this book fascinating, however, is the picture Obree conjures up of his mental health problems – severe depression that have caused him to make several attempts at suicide. Flying Scotsman reads as though he hid under his duvet for days, pounding out, with searing honesty, what it is to live with such a condition and then thrust the manuscript into the hands of its publishers before there was any chance of alteration of embellishment. For anyone trying to understand such problems – whether they find the cycling aspect of his treatise interesting or not – this makes it an extraordinary, and, at times, revelatory, read.

He is desperately poor on the ‘Daily Mail’ aspects of his story. His wife has clearly been a massively nurturing and steadying influence since they got together. Yet quite how they did get together does not make the pages of this autobiography. But then accounts of boy meets girl are ten-a-penny. The distilled experiences of a suicidal depressive are rather rarer.

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