Monday, June 30, 2014
Meditations on Early Ruin
What could account for such exuberant decay in a machine only 5 years of age? I imagined the bike being tossed, as a prank, off the Peace Bridge into the Lough Foyle, where it served as a playground for aquatic life before being fished out by local boys and sold at a car boot sale. I imagined other scenarios, too. But even as I played them out in my mind, I knew the bicycle's real history was nowhere near that exotic. Though this specimen was one of the worst so far, I have met others here with prematurely aged bikes, with bikes in horrendous condition for which they have no particular explanation.
Ireland is a strange, damp place. Vegetation flourishes. Man-made things fall apart. Both can happen with breathtaking speed.
I am slowly renovating the house I live in, which, judging by its condition when I moved in, I had at first thought lay empty for decades. It was in fact last occupied just 3 years ago. In this time span, rot and mold had crept in with methodical determination, while on the outside weeds and stinging nettles the size of trees smothered the once-manicured garden, their roots cracking brick walkways and stone walls. The plastic on the decade-old kitchen counters had softened and browned in the manner of pre-war cellulose nitrate. In the upstairs bedrooms I peeled off decomposing wallpaper I was certain had been put up in the 1950s, to discover children's scribbles behind it with the date 2007. Even the overall age of the house is not what I had first assumed from its look and feel. It was built not in the century before last, but in the 1940s. I wonder now how many other lovely old houses I spot in the area are really fairly new constructions.
On a cliffside 4 miles down the road stands a North Coast landmark, the enormous skeletal remain of Downhill House. When new to the area and not yet familiar with this structure, I heard locals refer to it as "ancient" as if it were some excavated archaeological site or an early medieval castle. Considering that even from a distance I could spot obvious neoclassical elements, this struck me as unlikely. Still, when I looked it up I did not expect the dates to be as recent as they were: The latest version of the house was built in the 1870s and remained inhabited until after World War II, its trajectory toward disrepair beginning mid-20th century. To think that within that time, the sturdy-looking giant, built no doubt with the finest materials available in its day, became this roofless maze of crumbling stonework - so thoroughly dilapidated that locals (some of whom must surely still remember it intact!), prefer to playfully re-imagine it as an ancient ruin.
There is a trend in some circles of cyclists to celebrate - and even try to hasten - signs of aging on their modern machines. From tattered grips to chipped paint, even spots of rust and tiny dents, such things are cherished as evidence that the bike is authentic and "well loved." This trend can be observed all over contemporary culture, from distressed jeans to the "shabby chic" style of decorating. To a critical theorist, this hunger for decay is symptom of a desire for history in an ahistorical era. But I wonder also whether it is specific to areas where things tend to preserve well - decay requiring either many years or special effort. Here in Ireland, if I want "history" to happen to a modern bike all I need to do is leave it in the garden for a week, then watch it succumb to stunningly early ruin.