Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

I’m writing this sitting on the beach front in Calais. A mother and two small children are scootched in the sand, and footprints mark where they’ve been playing. The wind and the waves come across the Channel from England. We’ve been pulling together a bench lunch, interrupted by an Englishman complaining about wogs and A-rabs, insistent on leaving the EU, while registering his van in Serbia for cheaper car insurance.
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Seacycles III: London to Brighton Night Ride

So we left at midnight from Monument. Kicking out time in Croydon. Kebab shops rushing with towered stacks of polystyrene boxes. Then breath down and sharp up into wilderness, a piss into the darkness and the wind. The city red white lights blink stupidly: What are we doing?
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Cycling Home for Christmas

Christmas is a time for overindulgence. For me, that usually means doing something a bit silly in the dark. The evidence: Last night, I left my house at midnight and cycled 70km through the night to get home to my parents’ for Christmas.

There shouldn’t be much more to say than that, but whenever I mentioned my plan to anyone their faces registered a mixture of disbelief, disgust, and a difficult question: “Why?”. (Except one guy who said, “70km? That’s nothing.”)

So before I fall asleep again, I thought I’d answer that question with three good reasons from last night’s silly ride.

The solitude of an unusual and unnecessary physical challenge.

Christmas is a time of year when I reflect on life and I find cycling helps (not as good as walking, but I didn’t have time this year). As my wheels turned over, so did my mind. What have I achieved this year? Who do I have to thank for those achievements? What have I learnt from my experiences? Where can I go from here? And I can only really delve into these questions alone.

The ride, it should be admitted was indeed pointless, even more pointless was the idea of cycling through the night. I could just as well cycled on Christmas Eve morning, in the clear light of day. But traditional rites of passage throughout history include this element of unusual and unnecessary challenge, not only so that people can “prove themselves”, but also to mark a break with the past. In my case, “the past” is 2015.

Without the solitude and without the rite of passage, my year does not feel complete. I am able to emerge from the trial a new (exhausted) person.

Beauty

It would be easy to skip over the fact that I love cycling through the night. Between about 2am and 5am, I had the roads to myself. While we sleep, the night shadows play their cinema. The battlements of a Norman church looming out of the night. Climbing through the woods around Stoke Row. Following an almost full moon that catches the startled eyes of sleepless rabbits. It’s there for us every night, just waiting.

Peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches.

Ingredients:

  • Peanut butter (large dollop)
  • Nutella (large dollop)
  • 1 slice of bread

Method:

  1. Take out bread.
  2. Paste large dollop of peanut butter on the bread.
  3. Slap large dollop of Nutella on top of the peanut butter.
  4. Fold bread over. It should feel infeasibly loaded.
  5. Lick knife clean.

Say no more.

Peanut butter and Nutella sandwich
Why do I not do this every night?

(Oh and the ride itself, I guess!)

For all you crank-heads, enjoy the stats. (p.s. No idea what happened around Sodding Common… Guess tiredness.)

Understanding the Calais Critical Mass

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, eighty cyclists rode seventy miles through Greater London and the Kent Downs to Calais. We cycled in a mass to the desolate camp ground and left our bicycles and tents for the migrants who live there.

It sounds simple when you write it down like that, but the trip had multiple and sometimes competing dimensions. My hope here is to explore these dimensions, from the superficial visceral to the more philosophical conceptual. I hope that this will help people, myself included, understand what the hell just happened.

The Ride

The first dimension was the logistics of the ride itself. Many people were not experienced long distance cyclists and none of us were riding flash new touring bikes. The road was punctuated with punctures, scattered with rain showers and undulating with hill climb, some unnecessarily arduous at the end of long lost detours (sorry about that).

But everyone who took part in the ride was gorgeous and courageous and threw themselves into the trip with optimism, laughter and steadfast determination that was quite hair-tingling to witness. All weekend, I didn’t hear a single moan, groan, quibble, niggle, whinge, whine, peeve or complaint that wasn’t soon laughed over as half a dozen other riders descended on the aggrieved to comfort or make right. Everybody made themselves indispensable.

That optimism, that coruscating energy that all eighty exhaled, pulled down all obstacles in our path and puzzle pieces fell into place precisely when they were called upon. The appearance of an eighty-seater roadside Chinese restaurant, kitchen ready to serve until midnight. The kindness of the proprietor who let us use his yard as an overnight bike storage unit. The large paddock opposite, with open gate and tree cover, for that blustery night’s camp site.

When you move in such numbers, with such force, not only does anything feel possible, but your very conception of the possible expands to encompass everything. Can we fix a double puncture in the dark? Yes. Can we climb another 17% hill on a single speed bike? Yes. Can we navigate through cat black woods in mud and hail? Yes. Can we find a restaurant, cycle parking and camping for eighty people? Of course.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-29 011

The Camp

After the group bonding transformation of the ride down to Dover, there was the raw experience of the migrant camp in Calais, overwhelming at the best of times, but this was, meteorologically-speaking, the worst of times.

That night suffered the worst of mauvais Calais: a ferocious thunderstorm. It lasted from dusk until the witching of dawn: cyclonic gales, hailstones, ripping thunder and flash dance lightning directly overhead. Many of our tents were ripped apart, sleeping bags soaked, turned to mops.

Far from drowning in disaster, we witnessed true solidarity, true friendship, true hospitality. The morning, dripping up from the night before, was filled with stories of how this and that party of Syrians or Afghans, those Kuwaitis or Sudanese, had invited tentless, sleepless cyclists into their shelters with companion offers of tea, supper and pyjamas.

There’s a fancy word that I’ve stolen from various theories of agricultural development and romantic attachment called “propinquity”. It basically means closeness, in both time and space. I’ve appropriated this term to capture the idea that the physical environment in which you find yourself at any particular time is the most important factor dictating the course of your life in that moment. Propinquity is hereness, nowness.

The most important person in our lives is always the person closest to us in physical space at that moment. The physical conditions and environment that we find ourselves in are always the most relevant to our lives at that moment. It’s no good having a nice warm house back in London if you’re stranded in a tempest in Calais. It’s no comfort having a hilarious friend who’d make you laugh about how wet you all are, if she’s not with you at that precise moment of drenchery.

No: you are entirely dependent, or rather interdependent with the people with whom you share this physical space.

Some people came with vague high-minded ideas that they would “help” the migrants. This is all very warm and fuzzy, but its misapprehensions were blown away by that gale. We were their guests; despite all the donations in the world, all we can ever truly bring each other is friendship.

Of course, in among all the handshakes, hugs, nuts, sweets, oranges and smiles, there was profound misery. Tents were washed away in mud slides, even vast UN-style refugee shelters stood in inches of water, only pallets on the ground raised the lucky ones from sleeping in streams.

A young man from Kuwait, a new arrival at the camp, came to me at four in the morning, trying to find a tent to sleep and shelter in. We walked around our clutch of canvas and found him one that was empty. But the door had been left unzipped and the tempest had made home there. He crouched down, dipped his hands into the swampish floor, stood up, covered his face with his palm and wept. I put a hand on his shoulder, another around his nape, and did all I could. He walked away over the dunes, backlit by lightning.

Calais June 2015 2015-06-21 063

There is a form of experience and learning called kinaesthesia. It happens when you actually do something, rather than read about it in a book or watch a programme about it on television. I believe that the only way you can truly begin to understand Calais is by taking part in such a kinaesthetic experience: by being there.

In many ways, the cycle ride was a ruse. The most efficient way to transport bicycles from London to Calais is to hire a van, pack it with fifty bikes and get someone to drive down. But then only the driver would have that understanding, that kinaesthetic experience of Calais. He could only attempt to spread his experience further through stories and maybe a blog post or a video. That’s not enough. I want everybody in Britain to travel to Calais and have a kinaesthetic experience; I want everybody to make friends and shake hands.

I always say that one trip to Calais, one cup of hot sugary tea with a Sudanese or Eritrean, is worth a full year of media stories, with their distortions, omissions, angles, exaggerations and outright lies. I think of Calais as an inoculation against the propaganda, a cool draught of reality against the slurping sugar and sour of the media and news machines. Some are hostile to migration, some are more sympathetic, but why filter through the eyes and words of others when you can immerse yourself in understanding by being there.

William James, the founder of modern psychology, said that we become what we do. I have become a writer by writing every day. You might have become a good husband by being kind to your wife every day. We weren’t born this way; we acted this way and became this way.

By cycling to Calais and staying in the camp with a family from Afghanistan, we become the person who cycled to Calais and stayed in the camp with a family from Afghanistan. That simple, but remarkable, act of solidarity becomes a part of us and makes us more empathic human beings in our future.

In some tiny way, the struggles of our own short two-day journey over land to Calais represented a scintilla of the struggles that migrants face, journeying not sixty miles, but thousands of unsettled, dangerous miles. We can never fully embody another person’s struggle, but we can stand closer with them through doing and becoming.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 024

The Bicycle Donation

Far and away the most minor dimension of the expedition was the handover of bikes to the people in the camp. We’d cycled them to Calais and we would be walking home.

For many in the media and for some on the ride, I’m afraid that this “charitable” aspect of the ride drew focus away from the more important dimensions outlined above: making the journey and simply being there at the camp, meeting and making friends, with people from very different backgrounds. Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to share the bicycle’s gift of freedom with someone who has none, but that gift can never outweigh our exchange of friendship.

Charity, as I have said before, can quickly become a hierarchical transaction between the supposed “haves” and the supposed “have nots”. I’m not saying that recipients of charity are not living without waterproof shoes or enough warm blankets, food or sanitation; they are. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t assume that, because these people “have not” something, they are somehow below us who “have”.

Ultimately, we are all human and we all live within the same range of emotions and experience, equally. We all love and laugh, we all get frustrated and angry. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We are all surviving together.

Going to Calais, therefore, should not be an act of charity. It should always be a shared act of solidarity between you and the people you meet there, moving equally in both directions. You are not giving anything away, no hand-outs, no donations, no charity: you are sharing yourself and putting yourself into a situation where you can invite other people to share alike. In this way, there is no distinction, no hierarchy, between “giver” and “recipient”: we will both have good days.

At times I have been angry, sad or vengeful over the injustices I’ve witnessed. Of course. But I have always come away from Calais immensely grateful to the people I met, for teaching me more about myself and the world we share.

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 031

The Future

There is a fourth dimension to this trip: the future. What will I, what will you, what will we do with this experience?

First of all, we will share our stories with our friends, with our families. Do not underestimate the power of a conversation, of sharing your experiences and enthusiasm. That’s how ideas spread and ideas are far more durable than money, tents or warm socks.

Little by little, more people will hear of Calais and the conditions under which our government makes some people live. Little by little, more people will go to Calais and understand for themselves. Little by little, attitudes to migration across the country will evolve. Little by little, more and more people will understand that to support impermeable militarised borders is to stand on the wrong side of history. People will be free.

When you combine the kinaesthetic experience and the propinquity conditions of both cycling seventy miles and meeting migrants in Calais, you live powerful, even overwhelming experiences. I have looked to the skies and felt tears and a beating heart. We have all made unforgettable memories and precious friends. Keep them and use them to inspire yourselves and each other.

And let’s do it again sometime.

“LOVE. Always. It’s the most important thing in life. Everything else is just a story for your grandkids.”

Calais Critical Mass August 2015 2015-08-30 020

Critical Mass to Calais: Bikes Beyond Borders

As you may have heard, we’re launching a critical mass-style ride to Calais in solidarity with the migrants who are living there, persecuted by the French and British authorities and ignored by the rest of the EU. Here’s a bunch of answers to frequently asked questions, which should be useful to anyone tempted to come along.

What’s the big idea?

We’re riding bikes to Calais, to give to the migrants who are living there. The best ideas are always the simplest.

Why?

The vast majority of people living in the camp have left their home countries for reasons of war and persecution in search of safety and security. Now, having been forcibly evicted from autonomous camps in Calais to a new tolerated zone, 7km from the town centre, there are in the region of 4000 people, including women and unaccompanied minors, living in conditions of poor sanitation with minimal access to support and services.

See my very short film and a couple of stories on conditions in Calais.

Most cyclists can relate to the sense of freedom, mobility and self sustainability afforded by the bicycle. For people living in the camps, bicycles are an invaluable asset, improving quality of life by increasing access to basic essentials like the local shop and support and advice services, currently an hour’s walk away. Some organisations have already began taking bikes to the camps, but many more are needed.

Where can I find out more about the ride?

This is the event page on Facebook (you don’t need to be a member of Facebook to view). You can also contact us through Facebook or by email on humans@ukhip.eu

We will also be holding a little meet and greet picnic on Saturday 15th of August, on The Rye in Peckham Rye (it’s a park) from 1pm. Bring something to share and any bike donations you have!

What is the ride route and schedule?

The ride will end in Calais over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 29-31 August. Those are the only parameters. Everything else is up to the individual riders.

More specifically, we (the original group of friends who came up with the idea) are going to set off from London (or Barnehurst, the last station in the Oystercard zone) at about 10am on Saturday the 29th and cycle along National Cycle Network routes 1 and 177 to Rochester.

Then we’ll head south, through the Kent Downs. We’ll sleep there, approximately 25 miles from Dover. On the Sunday morning, we’ll cycle the last miles and catch an afternoon ferry to Calais.

That’s us, but different riders will do things at different speeds. In any case, ferries will only take a maximum of 20 bikes, so arrival in Calais will be staggered over the Sunday.

Nothing about the ride is obligatory: some riders will only be coming as far as Dover, some will take a train down, some will part train, part ride.

A group of activists are planning a punk gig and pay what you can dinner in Calais on Sunday evening.

Can I come on the ride?

Please do! The more the merrier. All you need to do is:

  • Source your own bike to give away.
  • Pack up your panniers with food and a tent (if you’re staying overnight).
  • Book a ferry to Calais for the Sunday afternoon.
  • Meet us on Saturday the 29th.
  • Get cycling!

Let us know you’re coming through the Facebook event or by email on humans@ukhip.eu.

What will happen when we get there?

We’ll cycle the bikes and hand them over! In the evening, some people are trying to organise a pay what you can dinner and a punk gig, if that’s your sort of thing.

Some people will be staying over on Sunday night as well. You’re welcome to stay or take a ferry back that evening.

How will we get home without our bikes?

You can walk (~2km) from the camp to the port or take a taxi, a bus or hitch a lift. The ferry will take you to Dover and there are regular trains from Dover Priory (30 minute walk from the port) to London. You can also catch a coach from Dover to London, cheap if you book in advance.

What if I’m media and want to film / write about / photograph the ride?

Yes, you’re welcome to come on the ride as well! In fact, that’ll be the best way to share the story. On past excursions to Calais, we’ve had great experiences with sensitive media people coming along with us.

VICE: Playing Cricket in Calais with Screwed Migrants and UKIP-Trolling Activists by Charlotte England.

Sunday Mirror: Children of the Calais camps: Terrified refugee orphans have even lost wasteland they called home  by Gemma Aldridge

How many people are coming on the ride?

This ride is open to everyone and there is no formal sign up procedure – much like Critical Mass or the Dunwich Dynamo, if you are familiar with those rides – so we’re unable to say how many people will be coming.

While we really hope hundreds of people will turn up and “swarm” down to Calais on their freedom machines, Facebook RSVPs are highly unreliable so we can’t really know whether it will be 7, 70, or 700. Hopefully more!

Who is donating the bikes?

You are! The idea is that people coming on the ride will source their own bikes to give away. There are 7 times more unused bikes in garages and gardens in London than out on the roads!

The Bike Project will be donating as many bikes as they can for people to ride down. We’ve also had offers of bikes from as far afield as Wales, Bristol, Oxford and Norwich.

How else can I support the ride?

We’re raising money to cover expenses, like support van fuel and ferry, plus any other bike supplies the migrants might need – bike pumps and helmets, for example. Please donate and share!

Can I interview the ride organisers?

There are no organisers of this event as such. It was the idea of a bunch of friends and it’s really snowballed since then.

Perhaps the easiest thing to do if you’d like to interview the friends who have brain-childed this event is to come along to the social on the 15th of August. We’re hosting a bring-your-own-and-share picnic meetup on Peckham Rye from 1pm. See the Facebook event for a map and more details.

Contact us through Facebook or humans@ukhip.eu for more information.

Can I interview other ride participants?

We can’t speak for anyone else, but we expect some people will be up for it so long as they are sure you are not going to Daily Mail it up!

Can I interview migrants in Calais?

See my advice to media, journalists and film makers in Calais.

SEE YOU ON THE RIDE, YOU CRAZY BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE!