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Gary Aspey, Wheel Truer

July 29, 2012
by the gentle author

These pictures are by Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien who will be talking about his work today the crypt of Christ Church Spitalfields at 2pm. Commonplace, his exhibition of photographs runs there until 26th August. Throughout this past week, I have been revisiting stories I have done in collaboration with Colin, accompanied by his photos that span an extraordinary career extending from 1948 until the present day.

Gary shows off his £45 spanner

One Sunday at Gina’s Restaurant, while I was getting a cup of tea after my weekly visit to the fly-pitchers in the Bethnal Green Rd, Gary Aspey sidled up to Colin O’Brien who was with me and asked to have his picture taken. Naturally, Colin was delighted to oblige and while he was snapping, Gary told me his life story, revealing a fiercely independent spirit. A skinny guy, streamlined for speed in his close-fitting clothes – experience has taught Gary to be circumspect yet he has learnt the art of survival, earning his living by repairing bikes and today he freewheels through existence on the Raleigh Carlton he restored himself.

“It’s a skill within a skill,” Gary explained with authorative intent, when I asked about being a wheel truer, and he showed me the cherished set of keys he carries around slung on his little finger, which allow him to adjust the tension of individual spokes with rare skill, thereby restoring the true form to a damaged or twisted wheel. And it was impossible not to appreciate Gary’s chosen identity as integral to his straight-talking manner and open-hearted nature. Being a qualified bicycle repair technician and frame builder, there is little Gary does not know about bikes, and I discovered there is a lot more to it than you might imagine.

“I’ve seen everything in life in this market. One Sunday, a woman got stabbed in front of me and I saved her life by holding her stomach together. They were stealing a bike and she got in the way, they cut her right across. There used to be so many stolen bikes down here, one time. I’ve seen people going round with boltcutters cutting through bike locks in broad daylight. I’ve been stabbed a few times. I’ve been robbed, gangs of three and four come up to you from behind and if you don’t give your money they knife you. I walked through Old St this morning and they were all coming out of the clubs and throwing bottles at each other. It affronts everyone in this country.

I was born in Bermondsey, but we can get by. My mother hit me, my dad hit me, it was the drugs and alcohol. I didn’t get on. When I was seven, I got hit and I thought, “I want a better life,” so I left. I lived with an old lady, Nelly – her husband was a cabbie. I was running through the back of Bermondsey one day, my cheek was swollen with a bruise out to here and I had a black eye. She said, ‘I’ve seen you, I know your dad. Did he do that to you?’ She took me in.

Back in the seventies when I was a child, I cycled up here to the street that was all bicycle dealers. I worked for George in the market and then at his shop, Angel Cycles. My dad used to do bikes, but he was out of it before I met George. His dad had two stalls here before him, one selling bicycle parts and another selling army surplus, that’s how George made his money, and in 1950 he took the shop in St John St. That man taught me everything I know, he showed me how to straighten a wheel using a true key and wheel jib, – and I never looked back. With my true key, I straightened out the buckled front wheel of a bike for a woman and she gave me twelve pounds.

Nowadays I do the repairs for Camden Cycles in the Grays Inn Rd and in the evenings I build frames in my house. You’ve got to be interested in the culture and technicalities of bikes to be a frame restorer. I will strip them down by hand, it takes five to seven hours to remove the paint. Then I build up the layers again and bake it in a special oven. I’m qualified and I do it legally and responsibly, that’s the only way to do it. I’m always so busy. I never stop. When I first worked in the market I never had fourpence, but I didn’t rob anybody, I used my hands and my skills. If you want to get on in this world you’ve got to believe in yourself.

If you look at me very closely, I’m a dabbling boy. I do what’s around. At quarter past five we put the stall out. For me, it’s like a walk in the park. I’ve been married, I’ve been a carer and I’ve adopted a girl of ten.I’m strong at being strong.”

Once Gary had told his story, he was eager to get on his bike, so Colin and I went round the corner to meet George  and his assistant, a senior gentleman by the name of “Young George” who goes to buy the tea and sandwiches. George turned out to be a placid gentleman in his seventies who has been coming to the market for over sixty years. With a helpless smile, he confided to me that he had to close his repair shop because he was unable to overcome his habit of undercharging. Recalling how his father put him on the corner of Brick Lane at thirteen years old to sell three tins of boot polish for a tanner, George was amused to admit that this paternal attempt to encourage a commercial instinct failed miserably. Even today, driving up from Kent to sell a few spare parts is primarily a social exercise. A chance for him and Young George to have a day out and catch up with their regular customers that are now old friends.

To a lonely child cycling the city, like Gary, the culture of street cycle repair offered companionship and a means of earning a living too. Over forty years, the velocipede has now come to incarnate a state of being for Gary Aspey. As he put it to me succinctly - “On a bicycle, people have freedom of movement and freedom of mind.”

“It’s a skill within a skill.”

“I was born in Bermondsey, but we can get by”

Gary and his Raleigh Carlton - “On a bicycle, people have freedom of movement and freedom of mind.”

“That man taught me everything I know”

George has been dealing in bicycle spares in the market for sixty years.

George’s assistant, “Young George.”

Photographs © Colin O’Brien

Commonplace, Photographs by Colin O’Brien 1948-2012, runs at the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields from today, 28th July until 26th August. Open Tuesdays, Saturdays & Sundays 1-6pm. Colin O’Brien will be talking about his work today, Sunday 29th July, at 2pm.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Libby Hall permalink
    July 29, 2012

    In the 70s a friend of ours had her bicycle stolen, so on the following Sunday we went to Brick Lane to look for it: and there it was. We put our hands on the bike and stood in a little group around it while one of us went to phone the police. (Ah the days before mobile phones, when the nearest phone box had to be found.)

    Word went round that the police were coming. It was terribly funny. Quietly and efficiently almost every one of the bikes that had been lined up for sale disappeared. Everywhere that quiet clickety-clack sound that bikes make when they are being wheeled with no rider. By the time the police arrived there were virtually no bikes at all for sale. Our seller said he had ‘bought the bike in good faith’, he handed it back to my friend, and that was that. We left, and I’m sure ten minutes later the bikes were all back in position – all ‘bought in good faith’ waiting to be sold.

  2. dave permalink
    July 29, 2012

    sorry, there’s no way that’s a 45 quid spanner (unless he’s been robbed, which I doubt), and it’s certainly not a trueing spanner, which generally costs very little and is a lot smaller

    On the other hand, I’ve got my trueing spanner (somewhere in among a pile of junk), and I would still pay this guy to come and true my wheels, because it’s a skill that needs a lot more than a special spanner to master.

    thanks for the story

  3. dave permalink
    July 29, 2012

    though, having said that, what he’s got hanging from his little finger may be closer to the mark

  4. July 31, 2012

    i remember once going into a tenement which was full of cambodian refugees who just escaped the genocide there. 14 stories of people. i went into the public health nurses’ office (a great place for real stories, they know everything and go everywhere) and had to sit down for a minute.
    everybody, every single person in that building, had a story.
    sometimes — often — these stories of yours bring tears to my eyes.
    Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
    Plato

  5. August 1, 2012

    Great post. I’m most intrigued by the handwritten sign in the cafe though advertising Christmas dinner in july?

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