Within minutes of leaving home I realised that something was very wrong. I was on my way to the baker’s and while my early-morning brain had ensured I put on my cycling gloves and my cleated shoes, it had made a muddle over my crash helmet. The absence of a chin strap and the feeling of a lighter-than-usual rim told its own story – instead of the helmet, I was wearing my Panama hat! I should have gone home and changed but the irrational took over. On the route I take there is rarely any traffic and, if I did come off the bike, surely the Panama’s brim would cushion any impact and prevent serious damage?
How very odd! These were the thoughts of someone who, for over forty years, had always worn a helmet when cycling to and from work in London; who had preached to others the value of a hard hat; whose helmet had proved its worth when it was cracked after a serious, coma-inducing, altercation with a pothole, and whose wife’s life was almost certainly saved by wearing one.
But I was gung-ho and peddled on. I was, or so it felt, a new man. After all, as the result of a rigorous diet and much exercise, I was 30kg lighter than at the same time last year. Moreover not only were yesteryear’s aching knees no longer hurting, an operation undertaken to decompress a nerve in my right wrist had done its job. Finally, thanks to surgery this spring, there was no risk of the hard saddle compromising my previously enlarged prostate. This was only my fourth cycle ride after a long break, and with the wind in my face and the fields soon speeding by, my anxiety melted away. Miraculously, the hat stayed on and, while there, it did its magic.
The road home was downhill and the ride faster. In the wind, my magical Panama kept falling off and eventually had to be tucked away with the bread in my back pack. Now hatless, the confidence of my outward journey vanished, to be replaced by a feeling of panic. I felt exposed, vulnerable and frightened and was soon peddling at a snail’s pace, repeatedly looking round to check for approaching cars. With my head now bare, the fool’s bravado felt at the beginning of the journey had gone – cycling was now a tense affair.
I reached home safe, sound and very relieved, but during those last unprotected minutes a recurring scene flashed through my mind – I could not stop thinking of the events surrounding a then sixteen-year-old Simone Veil as she stood outside the gates of Auschwitz in a bitterly cold March day in 1944. With her elder sister and a friend, these three Jewish girls had just arrived after a dehumanising journey across Europe in a cattle truck. As they disembarked, a screaming camp guard demanded that they give him everything they had of value. They didn’t have much, but amongst their possessions was a bottle of a very expensive perfume: Arpège de Lanvin. Immediately, the three girls daubed themselves with its contents, then defiantly handed the bottle over to the guard – empty.
As I cycled helmetless down the hill, I felt that I understood an important aspect of their reasoning. Whatever other function the perfume served, for a time it would work as a magical shield protecting them against the horrors of the encampment to come. All three girls survived the camp and Simone Veil, who went on to become one of France’s leading feminists as well as a politician and a philosopher, died recently at the age of 89.
While my helmetless journey was worrying, it was certainly not of the same order as Veil’s experience, but since the thought of her perfume episode arose at that moment and with such clarity, I am sure that my Panama hat and Lanvin’s perfume had served a similar function – both provided a magical safety shield. And that, of course, is the function of all ‘comfort objects’, starting with the security blankets of babies. In later life, I suspect that in women, some of the same magic is afforded by haircuts and make up. By the way, Simone Veil kept a bottle of Arpège close by her for the rest of her life.