In case you’ve been on hiatus from our star system, Levison is an adventurer whom Channel 4 follow about doing venturesome things.
‘He’s such an adventurous guy’ my mum says.
‘Mum’ I begin, steadily. ‘I’ve been cycling around the world for six years.’
‘I know, I know darling’ she says, before lapsing into a reverie.
‘But he’s so handsome, isn’t he?’
She follows him on Twitter. It makes me wonder when she’s going to follow me. ‘Oh, are you on Twitter? I didn’t know’ she says when I remind her. I send her the link, but she’s lost to Lev’s feed, embarking on a festival of ‘likes’.
She bought tickets to see him speak at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, weeks after I’d given a talk to the students of the Oxford University Exploration Society, in a classroom. They were lovely and full of appreciation, all 16 of them.
I went with my mum to hear Levison. Crowds surged towards the entrances, as if at the tomb of a prophet. An elderly lady jabbed her bony elbow into my ribs, anxious there wouldn’t be sufficient space in the rafters if she didn’t get in quick. When I turned to face her I saw a sort of black fire in her eyes and I have no doubt that she would have lanced me with her broach had I stood in her way.
My mum told the usher she had vertigo and wouldn’t be able to sit in the balcony. She asked if she could sit downstairs instead. My mum doesn’t have vertigo. She got a front row seat. She reminds of this, every few days.
And there he was, in a white shirt, resplendent. An adventurous Jesus. Levison did his thing: spinning yarns with well-versed aplomb, splicing in video from his polished Channel 4 films, lauding his many hosts, quoting adventurers from yesteryear and defining his own sense of wanderlust.
The audience guffawed at his jokes, they purred in incredulity. They oohed and ahhhed with gusto. No-one fainted, but my mum was close.
My mum calls him Lev these days. Lev says this, Lev says that.
‘Yeah’ I say. ‘He sounds like a golf club’. In my lowest moments, I imagine a golfer on the fairway, turning to his caddy: ‘Hmmm. Looks about 450 yards. Pass me the Levison.’
I don’t have Lev’s facebook followers, the clamorous hordes of them. But that’s OK, I tell myself, I’m writing a book. I say writing, I mean I’m labouring it out, like an 18-pound baby. It’s abrading my soul. When I take a break from the writing process there are times when almost anything would feel like a relief. An acid-bath, for example. Or meningitis.
Lev has written two books, they sit conspicuously in book shops, stacked high on the tables out front instead of tucked away on the shelves. At least at the moment. I’ve considered hiding them in the Astrophysics section. I’m not sure what’s happening to me.
My book will launch at some point, but not like Lev’s books. I say launch, it may just drift up a bit and hang. It may droop. Is that what you call an anticlimactic book launch? A Book Droop? Maybe I’ll droop it in a pub, to a few mates and devotees of my blog, the kind of lonely people who’d come to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting if there were pretzels. I hope my mum will be there too, but I’ll have to check Levison’s tour dates in case he has an event on the same night in the northern hemisphere.
The blurb of Lev’s latest book comes with a quote from The Times: ‘Lev is ‘Britain’s best-loved adventurer… he looks like a man who will stare danger in the face and soak up pain without complaint.’ I wonder if the Times reviewer will be as kind to me. ‘Best-loved’ could be ‘most enigmatic’, if they were feeling generous. Maybe I could fake a quote from Lev himself, chances are he won’t read my book anyway.
‘Fabes is a bit like me, only more starey to danger, and more absorbent of pain’. Levison Wood.
There are some hard facts I’m hoping to live with: I’m 35 years old. Lev is 34. I live with my mum. I’m going bald with alarming velocity. Lev looks as though he could donate follicles to orphans with alopecia. My debit cards and credits cards are maxed out, the Student Loan Company are going to repossess my shoes and I’m living on cut-price baked beans, the kind that taste like salty cork. I borrow the neighbour’s tin opener and tell them I haven’t had time to buy one. But really, I’m trying to save the money.
‘Oh, but you have such memories…’ people chirp.
Fuck you. I’m malnourished, for fucks sake. I thought I’d be coming home to kudos and sell-out talks, not loan sharks and scurvy.
The other day my mum took me shopping because I couldn’t afford new clothes. We went to Sports Direct. I clumped along behind her as she said things like ‘try this one on Stevey’. I was the only 35-year-old man on the premises in this position, though there were a number of 12 year olds in a similar one. I caught the eye of one, traipsing behind his own mum, and we exchanged a little heads-up as if to say ‘Pffff. Mums.’ When we got to the check-out I sulked behind my mum as she paid, and I could see the staff thinking: what’s wrong with that guy?
This is the dark reality of cycling around the world, the bit that nobody warned me about. I doubt Lev goes to Sport’s Direct with his mum, not even as a brand ambassador.
It’s not that I’m jealous of Lev, you understand. Jealousy is base and unbecoming. It’s just that I want to hold him down and pour liquid silver onto his handsome face, until it sets and he suffocates, and then I’d keep pouring, and mould him into a big silver ball and roll him into the North Sea. It would be a striking end to the trilogy: Walking the Nile, Walking the Himalayas, Sinking into the Ocean.
It was Germany that played host to the chilly, damp dregs of my journey around the world by bicycle. But I’d become distracted. In principle, this was still cycle touring, more pertinently I was on an extensive tour of German bakeries, an awesome bout of scattered binge-eating . Cycling had become somewhat incidental, a means to an end, and that end was strudel.
Recurrently I devastated the front row of doughnuts in bakeries across Bavaria, with more competitive vigour than I’d ever shown for riding a bike. I’d arrive into dozy, sunlit villages – baroque church, yeah whatever, where’s the pastries at? The flat riverside miles, the breezy pedaling, all at odds with my mountainous appetite, and I began thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t be the sleek, toned champion I conjured when dreaming of my return to British soil.
Talk across Europe remained on the refugee crisis, thought to be the largest movement of people to the continent since the Second World War. In Munich PEGIDA were distributing flyers (The acronym, translated, stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – doing the Heil Hitler whilst saying this is optional at present), my hosts across the continent had assisted at refugee camps or put up refugees themselves or felt driven to angst with each fear-mongering headline, each evoking tidal waves, rivers and other water-features of displaced people. In Nuremburg I watched a girl of Middle Eastern looks holding a solitary cabbage she’d bought from Aldi, I wondered about her as she teetered on the threshold of the escalator, unsure.
I left the Danube at Regensburg and pedaled north, following the weaving passage of other rivers whose names I forget. Northbound though, rather than straight west, because of a visit I wanted to pay to certain celebrity of the cycle touring community: Heinz Stucke. Whenever someone gets a little excited by my admission of being on a six year bike ride, Heinz’s story is the one I dust off. ‘Let me tell you about this guy…’
It’s almost impossible to hurdle the mere facts of his ride: 51 years on the road without returning to his home in Germany, roughly 650,000 km pedaled during that time, a distance of 16 times around the planet through 196 countries, all made even more incredible when you consider that nobody else is in the ballpark. I wanted to get behind the numbers and meet the man, and I knew Heinz, now 76 years old, had finally stopped pedaling and had returned to his home town in Germany a few years back – I was hoping to fish him out. I hope you’ll forgive me, but meeting Heinz is a tale I’m going to cordon off and save for the book because I can’t hope to do it justice in this blog.
Holland: Flat! Windmills! (they’re just for show) Cheery blond elongated people! All the clichés! In fact it was all so Dutch I half suspected it was some sort of ruse, that perhaps when my back was turned the windmills disappeared through hatches underground and everyone took their platform shoes off.
The Dutch, it has to be said, love to say ‘Hallo!’ Even the teenagers whose British peers would be sniffing tip-ex and having MC battles in preference to giving cheery greetings to guests. I gloried in entering a peloton with three Dutch girls who giggled as we all glided along, on a perfect bike lane, shouldered by meadows.
I like to think I’ve acquired at least some navigational skills over the last six years, though apparently not after submitting to losing one of Europe’s major cities: Amsterdam. How could this happen? I was only 40 km away. Finally, on a canal path, a dog walker came to my aid. Her expression, that of someone who suspects they’re on a hidden camera show, suggested that my question might have been a first: ‘excuse me – Amsterdam: have you seen it?’ (Perhaps she was expecting me to continue: ‘that acid was CRAZY!’)
Amsterdam: city of cyclists. Or to be more accurate: City of cyclists and a quite astounding number of dead cyclists. It is possible a city can simultaneously love and hate bikes so lustily?
A Dutch person will always assure you that it’s just the tourists who get clattered, Dutch cyclists, they say, are more or less immune to accidents, being more practiced and vigilant.
Dutch people spend more time on their bicycles than people of any other nationality, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that all kinds of other activities occur on bicycles too. Texting or Internet browsing is more or less universal, I’ve watched cyclists dressing and undressing, flirting (which invites the possibility of being romantically clothes-lined by speeding young lovers), reading, eating, smoking, combing hair, fashioning dreadlocks, and often managing a combination of the above. It’s quite incredible how much a Dutch person can achieve whilst cycling, their natural state. This of course adds an extra anxiety when pondering the perilous nature of Dutch cycle lanes, as if they need any more perils.
Consider this: bicycle lanes in Amsterdam are skinny runways that swarm with cyclists – there are more bicycles than people in the city (almost as many again in the canals). Said cyclists effortlessly maintain a speed comparable to the escape velocity of a rocket, in a dynamic made more insane because they share the prized inches with scooters. Add to this the fact that everyone is being pummeled by gale force wind, tyre-wide tram lines slice the lanes at unpredictable intervals and any cycling tourist in the melee hasn’t pedaled a bicycle for more than a decade and is three days into a sleepless mescaline bender.
It’s like the Dutch have designed it that way: sure, come to our lovely city, marvel at our canals, take our drugs, but don’t you dare try to survive. It’s evidence of a dark wit the Dutch conceal well but that I know is brewing beneath the surface. Who else would make drugs so potent and available, and cycling so potentially fatal? Amsterdam is where bicycles go to get stolen, and cyclists go to die.
I stayed in Amsterdam with my friend Tim, a guy I’d cycled through South America with many moons ago. Tim, like all Dutch people, is still tall and smiling, probably happy he’s alive at all, considering his commute to work.
I wandered the canals for a time, noting that Amsterdam is beautiful, gregarious, self-confident and a tractor beam for most of the damaged and insightless moochers from other parts of Europe. I tried desperately to avoid conversations with British people in particular, following one which went something like this:
‘Hey man, have you seen Brian?’
‘I don’t know you, or Brian’
‘Yeah, anyway, he took some of the blue pills and I haven’t seen him since… wait, what day is it?’
‘I have to go now’
‘OK, but wait, have you seen Brian?’
‘No. And you should put a t-shirt on, it’s cold and people are staring’
‘Yeah. Someone else told me that’
Just two weeks before I arrived, Tim told me, a young British man was found floating quite peacefully, and lifelessly, in one of the canals. CCTV footage shows him wandering about minutes beforehand, making curious cross-stitch style progress down the street, and stumbling little detours, one of which eventually took him to muddy water he was probably too wasted to appreciate was not going to be good for him.
After Amsterdam I began to get worried about some desperate anticlimax befalling my journey. Perhaps, having survived Outer Mongolia, I would die somewhere entirely safe and ordinary, like Belgium. My bicycle frame could snap into seven after summiting a Dutch speedbump. I could collide slowly but devastatingly with a six year old French girl on a tricycle. I could become victim to a stampede of sheep, or get irretrievably lost in London’s traffic, or forget my own identity in the panic of the homecoming, or finally acquire an answer to that question that has pestered me for years: is it possible to die from over-consumption of dairy milk chocolate? On perusing my map I realized I’d be passing near a village called Bonnington, and if there were to be a zombie apocalypse, I became fairly certain this would be the epicenter, at exactly the moment I happened to be cycling by.
I enjoyed the fact this was a warning in the singular, a rooster gone rogue. Actually ‘rooster’ in Dutch means a kind of grid: this is warning for a cattle grid, not the marauding foul I’d hoped for
A curious combination in Amsterdam. Makes you wonder which came first. If it was Weight Watchers, you have to compliment Domino’s on their cynical opportunism. I imagine the head of the Weightwatchers group: ‘hey guys, you’ve all put weight on again this week, what’s going on? Wait, can I smell pizza?’
Something that strikes me after living a life of relative (by European standards) frugality is the wastefulness of people. I ask for tap water, ‘not bottled water’, from a cashier in a petrol station who’s standing beside a sink. She blinks at me, fretful, as if I’d asked her what time Ghengis Khan was dropping by. And one morning, in a hostel, I handed some rubbish to the receptionist who added it to the bin behind the desk. And then I remembered, he’d lent me a spoon, it was now amongst the rubbish he’d deposited. I told him, and this is what he said: ‘Its OK, we’ve got more’ and went back to work. ‘But it’s a spoon… a metal spoon…’ I stammered, surely it’s the height of lassitude to leave it in the bin?
A quick check of the weather forecast and I knew I was in for a meteorological slap about the chops. This shouldn’t be so much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog. I’m in a long term barny with mother nature, and a storm named ‘Imogen’ was her parting gift before I was to join the indoor world of London professionals, out of her reach. Holland’s windmills soon acquired an irritating logic. ‘You’re country’s too windy’ I told Tim who smiled meekly ‘yeah, I’m sorry about that’.
Imogen was a bitch, though Britain had the worst of her slapping. 93 km/hr winds thrashed me on the nose, launched wind farms into terrific whirling, tossed grey herons about like newspaper. A man stopped to kindly offer an explanation, or at least a description. ‘It’s very windy’ he shouted above the roar. ‘I wondered what that noise was’ I screamed back. ‘If you’re going to the Hague, its full headwind.’ It is legal in Holland to drown a man in a canal for being annoying?
In Bruges I met Edit, a lovely Hungarian lady I’d met before in Budapest, and we hung out for three days strolling the art galleries and book shops and bars before my final plunge towards home.
Heading towards Calais, the weather still very much unfriendly, I set upon Nuiport and suburbia when I was searching out my last rough camping spot of my six year ride, and for this reason, it had to be a good one, a glorious climax. I dithered for ages about some wind turbines before noticing the CCTV and shuffling a retreat. The rain was flying sideways, daylight petering to a grey glow, when I finally pitched in a muddy puddled clay-pit near a canal, inadvertently angling my tent entrance into the wind on a slab of ground so uneven I slept fitfully like a high jumper mid-flop. I also managed to knock my pan of water all over my ground sheet and the wind was so strong it was as if my tent was being savaged by an entire flock of angry and epileptic seagulls.
I’m gonna miss this, I thought, or wanted to, shivering violently in my tent porch. And because I didn’t quite believe it, I said it out loud ‘I’m gonna miss this’ and tried hard to mean it, but as my tent flapped madly in the gale, added ‘sometimes’.
It was a rough night, evidenced by the man whom I stopped the next morning to ask directions to Veurne and who kept frowning at my pronunciation before asking ‘du vin?’ and making the drinky drinky sign. It was 8.30 am. It’s reassuring I suppose that some things never change. The French were still resolutely refusing to recognize any of the syllables I created as belonged to their own language.
I couldn’t lose the paranoid visions of my return: on a canal path I was chased for an endless two metres by a pissed off goose.
Headline: Transcontinental cyclist found in Belgian canal
Subheading: A startled goose is thought to have driven a man on a six year bike ride into a fatal drowning after his jacket zip got caught in his bike chain.
The first signs of Britain arrived near Dunkirk when a string of shops shamelessly catering for British booze and fag runners arrived, all union jacks and names like ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Smugglers Corner baccy shop’
For the last two weeks the weather had been all things British, and by that I mean changeable, and by that I mean changing between drizzle to windy drizzle to overcast to drizzle. I could, if I was to remain riding south, reach the Riviera in a few weeks. Might be nice in the Spring. I’ve never been to Morocco.
Yep, that building in the background is a school. It had to be Germany.
The unfortunate name of a band
The French were noticeably laisse-faire about the creation of bike lanes, which would disappear abruptly, terminate in tree stumps, linger meanderingly for a bit before petering out near some bollards. It was good preparation for what England had in store. Bike lanes in England drift and fade and weave, like dreams.
But before I made it to British shores, I had another mission to attend to. Because it meshed with the theme of marginalization which will be part of my book, and because my experience of Europe had been so patterned by the ‘crisis’, I felt an urge to visit the large refugee camp in Calais called the Jungle. As with the other occasions I visited projects focusing on the health of those on the edges of society, I will reserve my observations for the book.
The next day I boarded the ferry bound for Dover, which moved off at a rattle through the yellow-tan sea. The journey itself was imbued with little moments of weight and emotion, but that was only true for me and not the other passengers and staff, which was why the man at the information desk looked back at me oddly as I ogled him in wonder after he placed a shiny pound coin into my palm, change for a map of London, which I then received as one might the holy communion or a magic amulet.
Everything had the gloss of Britishness. Accents sounds more regional, even my own adapted and I was surprised to note I’d begun subconsciously to release a cockney twang, and I’m not even from London, I’m from the Home Counties, with a tragic non-accent. I guess my eyesight had changed on that bright blue day, seagulls twisting through the sky.
‘World Cyclist dies in first ever P&O ferry sinking 50 metres from port of Dover. Seagulls to blame’
The chalky cliffs appeared earlier than I’d anticipated, rising in froth-like welcome from a green sea. A fighter jet ripped the powder blue above the shore. The BBC and the Mail started reporting on my return. I couldn’t see the adulating crowds at Dover yet, but I was still a way off.
As I started to wheel my bike off the ferry a guard stopped me:
‘Sorry mate. You gotta wait til this lot get off (gesturing to the trucks). Health and Safety’
At this exact moment ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ began playing in my head.
‘If I let ya go, you see, you’ll get run over’
Not: you might get run over, but the promise I definitely would, seemed startlingly, attractively British in my awed and fragile state. I’d been gone six years. I could wait another ten minutes.
Ironically the most dangerous part was outside the port when I steamed off onto the right side of the road and almost hit a car. ‘Shit, left side, left side’ I scolded myself. I then got dishearteningly lost in Dover before finding somewhere to change the last of my Euros into pounds. I eyed up the revolving door of the currency exchange, pondering whether my bike would fit inside. ‘Just leave it there’ a man told me ‘who’d wanna nick that?’
The A2 was horrible, it proved just how hurried I was as I left the UK in 2010 to have actually chosen this nightmare. But I wanted to retrace the path I cut six years before – I had people to meet in Sittingbourne. I was cheered up momentarily by the return of a particularly virulent strain of the British Pun in the guise of a small car with a large opened-topped receptacle on the roof emblazoned with the words ‘Junk and disorderly. All Rubbish Cleared. We do wives, girlfriends, mothers-in-law, husbands, taxmen…etc’
I detoured though villages when I could, had a pint of ‘Old Dairy Ale’ in the Black Robin. The country continued to swell with English nuance. I expected the emotion of homecoming, but never so surreal, fuzzy, close. I eavesdropped, imbibed the snippets:
‘The problem with Clive is that he’s a lazy sod’
‘Bloody council! Same as always!’
‘I ain’t drunk ‘ere for ages. Not since it was pie-night’
Nobody recognized me from the BBC, even when I smiled expectantly at them until they frowned and told their children to look away. The barman, noticing my bike, eventually asked ‘been far then?’ I considered, for a nanosecond, false modesty, but shelved it.
‘For six years actually’
‘And five more continents!’
I am now an incorrigible twat. He commended me, though rightfully I should have been barred for smugness.
I felt the opposite of the tumult I’d experienced at my departure, I felt soothed even when I shouldn’t have, the white van drivers blissfully skimmed by, too close, the rogues! I stopped in a shop to ask the staff how far to Sittingbourne.
‘God couldn’t tell ya. 2 mile?’
‘Nah, about 6’ explained another.
Customers in the queue all then got involved, opinions oscillated from one to eight miles. These were local people! ‘Take bloody days if you wanted to walk it’ said the man who’d suggested it was 4 miles away. About an hour, actually, I thought.
On January 6th 2010 Kent was snow-covered, and children were on the attack, platoons of them flinging snowballs at me for miles. I was wet, tired and defeated, with nowhere to camp. And it was in Sittingbourne that Tommy and Roger, strangers, offered me a place to stay. It was the first of a long line of acts of hospitality, impossible, I’d assumed, in miserable England. ‘We just hope that people treat our kids the same way’ explained Tommy. I arrived back at their home six years later, perhaps a little more dilapidated than they remembered me, but a bed was made up, a cake was baked in my honour and my faith in humanity was assured.
Onward, through villages now, the gleam of the Thames estuary. I would have laughed at the state of British cycle lanes, if I wasn’t wincing because of them. Woefully buttock-bashing mockeries of the concept, they did nothing for my sense of pride in my home country. Honestly, in Gravesend the bike path gave all the smoothness of cyclocross on tarmac – the lanes were landscaped by tussocks, a lacework of tree roots and water-features, stamped by echoing potholes, muddled by random bits of curb, wheelie bins and parked cars. Near Dartford one bike lane took me a generous twenty metres before fading into car-ridden noise and desolation. They were so flagrantly atrocious; it became easy to assume they’d been deliberately sabotaged. I imagined two road workers:
‘Eh Dave, we should probably flatten this bit out’
‘What?! For cyclists! Wouldn’t bother’
‘Yeah, good point. Got any thumb tacks?’
‘Lets run that next bike lane along all those parked cars. That’ll fox em’
And while I’m on the subject, England, stop painting the odd bicycle onto the road – that’s not a bike lane, it’s just paint. In fact, save the money on paint, and invest it in something more useful, like Intensive Care beds for broken cyclists.
And England, what’s going on with the ‘no cycling’ signs? They arrive as soon as a bicycle lane ends, but without recourse or explanation. Rationally, the council must have installed teleporters that would transport a cyclist from that point to another where the cycle path restarts. Perhaps someone nicked the teleporter. It’s only logical. Unless… unless bike lanes in England are devised and created by half-hearted half-wits. The ‘no bicycles’ sign in this context cannot be reasonably assumed to mean ‘no cyclists’ but instead ‘from now on town planners will not be considering the possibility that cyclists exist.’ It’s a threatening chaos of misdirection and bafflements.
And we’ve got the money! We spend it on putting Ferris wheels in major cities. It’s embarrassing, having biked in Belgium, Holland and Germany. It got worse: cycle paths came with weird slanting gates that were designed apparently to prevent motorbikes entering but were so harrowingly narrow it was implausible to get bicycle handlebars through without a virtual war on geometry, and impossible with a loaded touring bike like mine. I had to cycle on roads, pissing off the drivers, but I wasn’t going to use the undulating ribbons of piteousness that Britiain calls bike paths. It’s insulting. It would be like going to restaurant; explaining to the waiter that you can’t eat the meat on the menu, you’re vegetarian, and being served a steaming cow pat fresh from the anus of a leprous bullock. Get stuck in!
Put on your ‘writing jumper’. It’s oversized, woolly and you found it behind the dressing gowns at Scope. Forget that it still smells of a gouty pensioner. Breathe. Feel powerful. You are ready to begin.
Have a shot of hot water if you drool any of the grounds.
Limber up: Look about your room and create luminous, poetic similes. The widow shines like a pair of shiny glasses in the glassy sun. The can of coke is as crepuscular as an isotope of beryllium. The sunrise is as bloody as a road traffic victim. The road traffic victim is as flat as a bad simile.
Reread yesterday’s work. Eat / snort another coffee. Know that life is dark, hopeless and devoid of all meaning. Tape cotton wool over all the sharp edges in the vicinity of your desk and lock all windows above the ground floor.
Ha ha ha! Look! What’s a pig doing on a surfboard?! Look at it wobble about! Remove facebook from your bookmarks.
Decide on style of section break, * * * too cliché. Maybe a lozenge ◊, maybe that nameless fleuron §. Wait, was there something about the * * * thing that I didn’t fully appreciate the first-time round?
Ask a friend to read your first chapter and provide feedback. Explain that yes, you appreciate that they’re a full-time carer, and yes, if your mum had multiple sclerosis it would be devastating too, but none of that changes the fact that your deadline is approaching and it will only take nine hours and she won’t know if you don’t wash her once.
Email your agent. Explain how the industry doesn’t understand you, go into detail. Remind them of how many genres you are, right now, defying. Explain about that woman who wrote about the boy wizard and how many times she was rejected by publishers. Tell them you are almost exactly like her, but with significantly less wizards in your work.
Apologise to your agent for your behaviour. Blame gin. Tell her alcoholism will add a frisson to your biog.
Research what is selling really well right now and adapt so that a publishing deal is a shoo in. If nature writing is all the rage, add badgers.
Redefine your audience in your book proposal to include all Corbyn voters.
Go online and book a ticket to a reading by a published author. It will be motivating. Watch them closely, pinpoint their smugness. Know that you could be that smug too.
Go to the British library archives and research the fascinating life and letters of a historical pioneer. Never question the relevancy to your book until at least 17 hours of hard study have elapsed. Then make little sobbing sounds until the staff escort you from the premises.
Check out this months Amazon bestsellers in the closest genre to your work of great genre-defiance. Hate this genre. Lean out of the window. Scream ‘WHHHHHHHYYYYY!’ Do not make it sound like a question.
No creative sparks flying? Go for a walk. Do not come home until you have a clear head and have been suitably inspired. Also: pack supplies, say goodbye to close relatives, get a vaccination for Japanese encephalitis.
Edit for specificity: I climbed through the forest in the darkness. I elevated my hand and gripped a rock and curled my fingers around it and heaved myself up and moved my other hand and gripped another rock and noticed that the light that fell across the larch was roughly that of a three-watt bulb in the corner of a 3 by 4 metre square cellar at 67 degrees latitude at 5pm on midsummers day.
Make your writing sensory. What did the wind taste like?
Remember that listicle you were going to write for your blog? No better time than the present.
Write 1000 decent, effortless words. Chortle to yourself. Stroke your own face. Go to high five yourself… whoa! too slow! Sleep soundly. Wake up. See point 5.
I’d noticed it take form in my diary. A run of blank pages, cleaned of life as it should be. The weeks leading up to and after this time were messy with scribbled reminders of tasks and presentations, shifts in A&E, meet-ups with mates. I wasn’t sure how this void came about, but sometimes I wondered if I’d made it happen.
Half-consciously, perhaps I’d cultivated a little nest of free time, meticulously positioning my life outside of it. Perhaps I needed to journey again. Perhaps I was straining to hear the call of a new adventure, like everybody warned me I would.
It had been eight months since I’d got back from cycling around the world, and the journey itself felt more like a single place than a string of them; a place now fenced off and unreachable, with a shimmery and yearnful quality. It’s extraordinary how divorced I feel from those years, considering they’ve only just passed. I get a misty-eyed, hollow feeling when a trawl through my photos on flickr. I feel oddly bereft.
Back home, the sense of physical pursuit faded as the mental pursuit of authorship heaved into its place. I’ve tried to embrace the writing life. Mainly by living on bland food and being broke. But my new flat is not quite a garret, and I’m not suicidal. So there’s still some way to go on these fronts.
I go to writing circles. I browse second hand book shops, often when I should be writing. But there’s something about motion that really helps my mind carve through the din and create, so I still go for bike rides, whipping through the bridleways around Oxford, leafy tunnels of green light, dank air, slapping stems.
It was something Sarah Outen said at Basecamp festival that got me into a dangerous frame of mind. She talked about the unpredictability of life on the road, and how crucial this was to her concept of adventure. I sat there nodding, an idea easing half-noticed into my mind. Hmmm… unpredictability….
After the festival, I found myself watching a facebook video of a pig on a surfboard. ‘Weeee!’ I exclaimed inanely, guffawing like a simpleton. This, coupled with the word ‘wow!’ exiting my lips when I heard of the Angelina and Brad split, cemented a very strong feeling that I needed to get the fuck out of here.
I eyeballed that space in my diary again, it sparkled now, shivered with potential energy. I felt something stirring: a need to stretch my muscles, light out for somewhere new and wide-open, somewhere to be wind-rushed and lonely, and fired up again by the challenge of wilderness and the insecurity of a challenge.
So I’d go away. But how could I reclaim this feeling of uncertainty, the blustering soul of any adventure? Perhaps I could set out on a journey that was almost entirely unplanned?
But not by bike. It’s hard to find adventure on a bicycle in the UK, when my benchmarks for exhilaration are Mongolia and Afghanistan. Something more simple then. Maybe I could run?
And that was that. A light flared up the dark. It was obvious now: I’d run. No plan. No destination. No time frame. No idea of places to sleep or miles to cover each day. No training, because there was no time. No explanations. No social media. No idea whether I’d make it further than half a day. Wherever I ended up, it would be more or less by accident. I felt suddenly excited, having peeled off any purpose other than movement. My mum didn’t agree. She needed my journey to have some sort of blueprint.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked, as I tried on my new rucksack and trotted around the table to check it was comfy enough.
‘Dunno’ I said, hurdling the coffee table.
‘How long will you be gone?’
‘Honestly, I can’t say’ sipping then on the tube to my camel bak.
‘Where will you sleep?’
‘No idea’. Grinning.
And then, because she was looking anxious, I thought I’d better give her something.
‘Mum… I can tell you this much. I’ll be going vaguely north’
She looked more worried than ever.
It’s amazing how unnerved people are when you admit to having no idea what you’re up to. This conversation would repeat itself in pubs in five counties over the next few days, as bar staff and locals asked the same questions and I offered shrugs in return.
I realised that a run through the UK would have some happy side effects. It would help me become reacquainted with a place I’d absented for so long. It was a chance to explore the vast maze of bridleways and byways and towpaths and footpaths and backroads I’d spotted winding away to nothingness on my bicycle.
But there was a problem. Actually there were several problems: my knees, my ankles, my feet, my hips and my lower back. Musculoskeletally, I’m a disaster. Born of stock crippled by arthritis in their 50s, requiring joint replacements, and having undergone knee surgery once already, I knew my body could deal with the less stressful pursuits of cycling and swimming, but that running was not a particularly good idea. In the few days between deciding to leave and leaving, my knees ached when I climbed the stairs. My back was giving me jip. But I couldn’t wait, the weather would turn, this was my chance. And anyway, it only added to the unpredictability I craved: I had no idea which part of body would fail me first. How exciting!
But I knew that if I had any chance of making it far, considering I’d never run more than 10km in a stretch in my life, I’d better get the right kit.
Everyone knows the best way to prepare for run longer and tougher than you’ve ever attempted before, is to buy a pair of trainers named after an Ancient Greek Horse God.
My Nike Pegasus would easily compensate for the fact that during my life to date, running had mostly been a spectator sport, and not something to actually do. Mo Farah was a poxy dilettante compared to me. This was also confirmed by the local running shop (not, I should say, in so many words) when they put me on a treadmill and filmed my feet as I ran to check my running style. Some people are heal runners, some toe, I am neutral. In other words, bloody perfect, born to skip ultramarathons whilst others suffer on the sidelines. Nothing could stop me.
I always get excited at the prospect of taking off with the absolute minimum of kit, only to pack it all up and realise that the absolute minimum is quite a lot less minimal than I’d anticipated. But somehow I stashed 5kg of kit, none of which I could do without, into an 8 litre rucksack. My down jacket was the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. Exactly what would need on an expedition, because as well as the cold, ghosts are frequently a problem, and it’s great that I now own an item of clothing apparently invented for those who are keen on whispering to them. Very practical.
I left on the Autumnal equinox, when night and day are mirrored in length. The moon was a waning gibbous, just shy of the harvest moon. Then morning came, I stood at my front door, my rucksack hard against my shoulder blades, momentarily overwhelmed by the simplicity of what I hadn’t planned at all.
I narrowed my sight onto this moment. I moved off, one pace, two, a spring in my step. I was running, and that’s all I hoped to know. Off, though blissfully unaware, to Smalley Green.
I know what you’re thinking. That man is made for leggings.
Last week I posted a video featuring some highlights from the six years I spent travelling around the world on a bicycle, and it was predictably dominated by the people I met and cycled alongside. But it wasn’t all shits and giggles. In the name of balance, I’ve put together another film about the more gruelling times. Here’s something from the darker side…