Them and Us: Evolutionary Politics and The Philosopher Kings (and Queens)

The People’s Parliament is defiantly held in the least democratic building in the United Kingdom: the Houses of Parliament. Every Gothic gargoyle, every vaulted ceiling and marbled floor, every gun-toting copper screams totalitarianism. My local Territorial Army base is more democratic than the Houses of Parliament. Never mind. Our parliamentary host, John McDonnell MP, flaps his hands in despair at the larger-than-life oil paintings of dead monarchs around him, glad that this feudal building is being used “for something worthwhile, for a change.”

Police with guns
Not authoritarian at all.

That is how I started a blog post on a session of the People’s Parliament for Strike! magazine. The proletariat parliament had gathered in Committee Room 8 of the House of Commons to debate two questions posed by Zer0 Books: How has capitalism got away with the financial crisis? And (as if that wasn’t enough): Why is politics scared of political ideas?

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A SIGNPOST: If you’d like to read a summary of the actual debate, then I politely usher you away from this post and to the very excellent Strike! blog. This post, on the other hand, will be a meta discussion on the very concepts of the People and Parliament.

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Two things immediately struck me about the proceedings of this People’s Parliament. Firstly, that second question – Why is politics scared of political ideas? – seems to be missing a pronoun. Politics isn’t scared of ideas, not at all – why, only today, chancellor George Osborne dropped the Bingo Tax! And, over the course of the current parliamentary term, we’ve also seen the biggest reforms of the National Health Service since it was founded, austerity packages that have contributed to the slashing of the deficit by around £60bn and an Act of Parliament ensuring the environmental protection of the Antarctic (celebrated, I kid you not, with a commemorative tea towel and tartan tie). What’s wrong with these political ideas? Well… they’re not ours, are they? The question should be revised: Why is politics scared of OUR political ideas?

Which leads me on to the second thing: for a self-styled People’s Parliament, there is a lot of talk of “them” and “us”. And, make no mistake, this imaginary parliament is composed entirely of us: the Left. Even the man sitting next to me, dressed in leather shoes, wearing a smart suit and waistcoat, carrying a handlebar moustache and a leather briefcase with shiny brass buttons – even he is one of us. Neither the organisers of the People’s Parliament, nor Zer0 Books are particularly to blame for this imbalance – there were no Marxist goons at the door to the committee room, checking Party subscriptions or testing for neo-liberal sympathies. Theoretically, anyone could have attended – but I’m not even remotely interested in why they didn’t. I’m interested in why there exists a “them” and “us” in the first place.

The Right are often spoken about by the Left as if they are a monstrous sub-species, blood-sucking vampires and one-eyed cyclopes (the Right, I’m sure, feel the same about us). Now, I have some bad news: despite appearances, the Right aren’t diabolical creations of Frankenstein (George Osborne might be), they are as much a part of the human race as we are. But if that is true, I hear you cry in horror and disbelief, then why don’t they all give up and become more like us? Can’t they see that they’re wrong?

But, dear reader, we could ask the same of us. What are the Left? Why do we exist? Please tell me there’s more to us than good haircuts and indie bands. Well, let us find out…

Typical Lefty.
Typical Lefty.

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Chimpanzees would vote Conservative. After spending ten minutes watching them picking nits at London Zoo, I’m almost certain that they’re Conservatives. In all my hours at the monkey house, I’m yet to witness any primate light up a spliff, read The Guardian or argue for a womanzee’s right to choose. And that’s why it’s the chimpanzees in the cages and us humans handing out the bananas. Chimpanzees don’t have evolved politics.

Cavemen were a fairly conservative bunch too, preferring grunts and wooden clubs to Marxist dialectics and nationalised healthcare. But, as well as the cave-conservatives, nascent human society had something else: mutant socialists. In order for evolution to proceed, there must be mutation. In political terms, this means we need people who blow away the status quo and do something Fucked Up and Wrong. And, politically speaking, that’s us, that’s the Left.

Sometimes, of course, those mutated ideas are genuinely Fucked Up and Wrong and result in a sicker society, one that ultimately destroys itself. Just as 99.9% of all species that ever existed are extinct, so too 99.9% of all societies that ever existed are now extinct. And that doesn’t mean that we have the best possible society now either – not at all. Just as some superb genes have been lost to the gene pool (I always thought that a pair of sabre teeth would have been useful for opening tins), so too have we in the West lost some superb social arrangements (anyone for matriarchy?). But without this constant Leftist innovation and mutation of politics and society, humans would still be stuck in caves, flinging shit at the walls, making friends by divesting their hair of head-lice and indulging in infanticide to preserve the purity of our bloodline.

You may wonder, then, why we’re not all brilliant socialist geniuses. The answer is that, sadly, for every one Lefty caveman who proposes the first primate parliament, there are a thousand who propose cooperation with sabre-toothed tigers, equal rights for head-lice or the League of Nations. Most ideas we have are Fucked Up and Wrong: the Right, then, exist to stand back and judge. If, by some miracle and contrary to all sensible advice, some loony Leftie has a break-through, the Right will immediately start copying us (and pretend that it was their idea all along). The Left and the Right are fundamentally different, but society is not them and us: human society is Left and Right together.

St Paul's Protest
Left and Right together at Occupy?

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None of this is to say that the Right don’t innovate: Hitler was nothing if not, ahem, an innovator. But the Right don’t innovate the future; they innovate the past. Hitler innovated for the past of the Aryan race; Mussolini for the Romans; the BNP for a time before immigration. And, of course, most humans are neither far Right nor far Left: most people are somewhere in between – but it’s the extremes that define the debate, as we are finding out with David Cameron trying to out-UKIP UKIP and Nick Clegg trying to engage Nigel Farage in a debate on the EU.

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Ancient Roman society innovated like mad in the industries of straight roads, the military and the imaginative torture of Christians – but why did they never invent the steam engine? Answer: because they had slaves. Their authoritarian Right would not allow the widespread manumission of slavery: free slaves are dangerous subjects and they must be kept occupied, doing the things that a steam engine could otherwise do. In the West, we had to wait for the radical Left to abolish slavery before a gap opened up in our technology for the steam engine – which kicked off the entire industrial revolution (for better or worse). The Left believed that the industrial revolution would result in a Utopic civilisation where days could be spent in the idle worship of beauty and smog. But, of course, our authoritarian Right wouldn’t allow that: free wage slaves are just as dangerous subjects.

The history of human society is a history of this constant pushing back and forth between Right and Left. An optimist would argue that the general trend of evolutionary politics is to drift left (because we’re awesome). An optimist would argue that the current lurch (lurch is a technical term from political science) to the Right is a mere blip in the millennial trend that has seen the end of feudalism and the start of a comprehensive welfare state. It is my belief that the Left should take great pride in this, our DNA-given role in political evolution – to fuck up society with a scatter-gun of new ideas and direct action. But we, the Left, must not also be complacent. If we are not vigilant, then the Right will nick all our best ideas and use them to justify their own ends (see “parliamentary democracy”). Dare they? Do they? Yes. Because they vastly outnumber us. It’s a hazy estimation, but one regular US poll judges conservatives to outnumber liberals by about four to one.

From an evolutionary point of view, I’m reluctant to admit that this balance makes total sense. In the battle for survival from one generation to the next, a genome wouldn’t want the entire population to be loony Lefties, inviting tigers home for tea. A genome wouldn’t even want half the population to be loony Lefties. A genome would want most people to be boring, a genome would want most people to keep doing what their great-grandparents did to survive – but with just enough loonies to keep things fresh. Evolution is a cosmically slow process, which can be frustrating to us revolutionaries, but you can see evolution’s point: If the status quo has worked for a billion years, then why change overnight, in a year, or even in a generation?

Typical scene after failed revolution.
Typical scene after another failed revolution.

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Apologies for going on so – that’s the nature of impotent Lefty theorising. I assure you that the end approacheth, together with a (gasp!) practical proposal, as reward for your patience.

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So the Left will always be outnumbered by the Right: that’s pre-determined in human DNA, I’m afraid. But we can load the game in our favour by exploiting maths (heinously flawed maths, but stick with me, if you will). Supposing that the above-cited US poll is approximately correct: that only twenty percent of humans are Leftists. Then, given that there are 650 seats in the House of Commons, we should find about 130 are on the Left. Now, assuming that MPs of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Alliance, SDLP, Plaid Cymru, Respect, Sinn Féin and Green parties are at least Left-leaning (massive assumption given the last Labour government), then what we actually find are 333 Leftist MPs. That’s over fifty percent: a clear majority, even in this Tory-dominated government. The conclusion we draw from this anomaly is that Left-leaning humans are vastly more politically active than their Right-leaning counterparts. We are DNA’s anointed Philosopher Kings and Queens.

Why, then, do we find ourselves suffering such Right-wing authoritarian abuses as austerity, even under a coalition government including the Liberal Democrats? Why did those same Liberal Democrats drop their promise to abolish university tuition fees? Why did the Blair-Brown Labour governments embrace financial neo-liberalism? The answer, I fear, is terrifyingly simple: logistics. Societies with a large population, like the UK, are almost impossible to manage fairly. It’s hard to be democratic when 63 million people are represented by only 650 politicians. The very idea makes authoritarianism seem appealing, even to supposedly Left-leaning governments. By the way, it won’t surprise you to learn that David Cameron supports the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, making the country even more authoritarian (or “less bureaucratic”, depending on your viewpoint).

The Left has a difficult time wielding power in large societies. The poster-girls of Leftist European government are Sweden (population 9.5 million, 349 MPs), Iceland (population 320,000, 63 MPs) and Denmark (population 5.5 million, 179 MPs). I conclude that it is in the Left’s favour to build and work in smaller societies. In these smaller societies, Philosopher Kings and Queens aren’t so easily drowned out by the clamour of X-Factor.

Therefore, I would politely suggest that the Left should throw their entire weight behind the YES campaign for Scottish independence. This will make whatever remains of the UK slightly smaller and the Westminster parliament marginally more democratic, marginally more of an actual people’s parliament. But, far more significantly, a YES vote will also give us a glimpse of what a smaller, more democratic and more Leftist population can achieve on their own. Scotland will become a precedent for total regional autonomy: If they can go it alone, then why not Wales? Why not Cornwall? Why not Humberside? The referendum on Scottish independence takes place on the 18th of September 2014. The rules say that anyone whose permanent address is in Scotland, ahead of the deadline for registration on the 2nd of September 2014, can vote.

Bonnie Scotland
Bonnie Scotland.

Finally, here follows my practical proposal:

This summer, gather your friends and allies, pack up your megaphones and polish your anarchist pin-badges and let’s move to Scotland en masse. Let’s create an independent Leftist state together, severing all ties with this most undemocratic of buildings forever.

Mel Gibson would be proud.

City to Coast; Midnight to Dawn

Friday Night Cycle to the Coast Felpham 028

It’s raining even before we leave. My toes are already burning with cold, poking out of my sandals. It’s a midnight in March. The weather forecast is for rain until two or three o’clock in the morning. Heavy rain in places. We won’t arrive at the coast until six.

It’s the first Friday Night Ride to the Coast of 2014. For the last eight years, a group of cyclists have been gathering at Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner at midnight on a Friday, to cycle through the night to the coast. I’ve done this once before, to Felpham last August. But it wasn’t raining.

My feelings at the moment are: I don’t want to do this. I hate everything about this. I hate the fact that none of my friends are with me, the fact it’s cold, the fact it’s raining, the fact I went for a run this morning and my legs are already aching, the fact I didn’t bring more clothes, the fact that I cycled five miles to get to Wellington Arch and now we’re going to cycle five miles back the way I came to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the fact that I forgot to wear my cycling shorts.

Friday Night Cycle to the Coast Felpham 022

There are more than fifty people on the ride and that means progress is slow, stopping every mile or two for everyone to catch up. Slow means cold, with nowhere near enough leg-pumping to warm me up. By London Bridge, my feelings are: How can I get out of this? I have plenty of excuses, starting with the fact that I’m freezing cold and wearing pneumoniac shorts and sandals. I’m also due to go on a road trip to Wales this morning – in just a few hours. I should be getting some sleep. And it’s hailing now, for fuck’s sake!

But none of these excuses are good enough. One of my friends is meeting me on the other side of the pollution-warmed Rotherhithe Tunnel – one of the glorious friends I have who are imaginative enough to see a night-ride in the rain as a good idea. She has even more excuses than I do not to come: she’s been working in Eastbourne all day, only got back to London a couple of hours ago and her cooker ran out of gas halfway through cooking a cycling-essential carbohydrate dinner.

So I keep going, for her sake.

Friday Night Cycle to the Coast Felpham 032

The FNRttC (as it is known) is a superb idea: at midnight after work, meet up with some friends and cycle from the mucky city, through the mucky countryside, through the starlight, into the dawn, to the lung-balm coast and the sea. Have a swim and a full English breakfast, then take a lazy train back home. What better way to blast away the choke of the working week and begin an unforgettable weekend?

The FNRttC is a superb idea, but there’s one problem: other people. I’m sure someone enjoys crawling along in a peloton of fifty, but it’s not me. I want to stretch my legs and sprint against the hailstones – but I have to wait for the back-markers, the Tail End Charlies. The leader of the ride orders me to, “Drop back, young man!” when I dare to push up at the front. We have to wait at the bottom of London Bridge, we have to wait to be escorted through the Rotherhithe Tunnel. We have to wait and wait – and all in the rain. It’s miserable.

Friday Night Cycle to the Coast Felpham 014

So, as soon as I meet up with Anna, we quit the ride and the hail and push our bikes into a chicken shop on the Barking Road. We order a couple of black teas and apologise for our puddles. It’s one o’clock in the morning and the only customers are garrulous drunks, astounded, admiring our audacity.

Over the brackish brew, we consider our options. Quitting is something I’d dearly love to do right now, but I can’t disappoint myself like that. Besides, Anna knows the way to Burnham-on-Crouch. We can go it alone, we can sprint into the night, we can throw off the shackles of organisation. It might sound strange to say that cycling all night from London to Burnham-on-Crouch is following the herd, but there were over fifty lycra-bonded white sheep that night and I have always been black. And hated lycra.

Organised rides might not be for me, but a thousand thanks to the FNRttC. Alone, I would never have had the audacity to even think I could pedal all night to the sea. Now, I am stealing your idea and taking it for myself, spreading it like jam across my life.

After five hours of cycling, the clouds roll away and I stare into the sunrise, into the eye of god and I swear to live: Why don’t I do this every night?

Friday Night Cycle to the Coast Felpham 044

10 things you learn when you cycle 4,110 miles around Britain

Cycling right around the coast of Britain is unquestionably the single most rewarding thing I have done in my life. The wonder of it is that I didn’t do something like it sooner.

1. You can do anything, if you just take it one wheel at a time. 4,110 miles is nothing but 1 mile done 4,110 times. Nothing is impossible when you break it down.

2. You’re not special. Anyone can do this. Anyone can buy a bike and cycle from their front door, to god knows where. Don’t imagine that you’re not fit enough to try: fitness comes with every mile you pedal.

3. Rain isn’t an excuse. Rain is a circumstance out of your control, like the condition of the roads, or the terrible music on CapitalFM. You’ll just ride through it.

4. Cycling is addictive. One mile breeds another, seeing the numbers click forward on your odometer turns every stretch of road into a game to be beaten. Make sure you spend enough time sleeping, eating and sight-seeing, though!

5. Ever fancied sending the waiter back for a second main course – and then having dessert? Ever wished you could eat a Full English every morning? Ever fancied seeing how long it takes you to burn off the calories contained in a full bag of Jelly Babies? Welcome to the cycling diet.

6. Britain is stunningly beautiful. You need never go to another country as long as you live. There is an infinite supply of fascination and adventure right here for us.

7. Cycling isn’t complicated. Modern bikes don’t break much. Modern tyres don’t get punctures. Absence of a degree in bike mechanics is no excuse.

8. The hardest part of doing anything is starting. Once the wheels have started turning forwards, they don’t turn back.

9. Achievement is the surest way to courage and confidence. All you have to remember is: 4,110 miles.

10. Nothing will be the same again. You will always have cycled around Britain. Your conception of the possible is transformed.

11. One day you will cycle around Britain – the other way!

Blue NCN 1 sign
You will play “Spot the blue sign” a lot.

Start an ambitious physical challenge, or die not knowing!

Amazing isn’t enough: Cycling 4,110 miles around Britain*

What inspires you?
What do you admire in other people?
What do you want to achieve?

I ask myself these questions all the time and the answer is always the same – at the risk of sounding like an idiot – awe and the awesome.

Warning: Much of this article is going to sound like a cheap Dale Carnegie knock-off. Sorry about that.

The awesome (according to the OED definition) inspires in us “a reverential wonder combined with an element of latent fear”. Hemingway on a fishing boat in the terrible sublimity of a storm – “The Old Man and the Sea”.

The day I left to cycle around Britain, that metaphysical “element of latent fear” had a very physical grip on my bowels. I had never done anything like this before. I was scared of my bicycle, a six-gear second-hand Raleigh with a proclivity for catastrophe. I was scared of my knees, which were about as strong as the hinges on our bathroom door. I was scared of my camping arrangements, which (in my imagination) involved ditches and shotgun-wielding farmers. But most of all, I was scared of the weather.

In some ways it was a typical English summer’s day, in other ways it was Hemingway’s sea-storm. The clouds were bursting in freakish pressure drop rainstorms every few hours and I sat in my friend’s kitchen for hours, clinging to my cup of tea as if it were a lifebuoy, prolonging the fear. This was the classic fear of the unknown. This was the fear that made me certain the whole trip would be worthwhile.

I did (eventually) overcome my fear, I did (eventually) leave my friend’s kitchen, I did (inevitably) get soaked in a rainstorm and I did (surprisingly) realise that rain isn’t so bad, but fear made it so.

Incidentally, I found that rain, more than any other weather, can provoke a whole range of powerful emotions: anger, hatred, depression and joy, as well as fear. It is emotion that bends our mind’s response to weather, not the weather itself. Once I realised that, I could bend my mind back again to something more positive. Sometimes.

Stop: The last thing I want to do here is write a puff-piece, showing-off about how great the journey was, about how great I am and how I did this and that and the other. I’m not kidding anyone: it was nothing more than a long bike ride. I didn’t have any good reason for the trip: I didn’t raise money for charity, I didn’t give talks in schools about sustainable transport, I wasn’t even going to write a book about it. I did it for myself alone. It was the cycling equivalent of a two-month asphyxiwank: pain and pleasure in equal measure for no discernible purpose. So, instead of writing about me and my bike ride, I’m going to try and explain why I did it.

For people who don’t know what I’m talking about, some background: this summer I cycled from London to London via Scotland, the Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides, the Lake District, Wales, Cornwall and just about every point in between. I went through two bicycles, three baskets and about four thousand calories a day. I slept most nights in a bivvy bag, got a bad-ass tan and am now as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog. It took me 58 days and cost way more money than I expected.

So: why did I cycle 4,110 miles around the coast of Britain? Because awe told me to.

There was one other reason as well. In my life, I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair amount. I’ve travelled all across Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia, but only very rarely in the UK. It got to the point where I knew Cairo better than I knew any place in the UK, bar London and the environs of my South Oxfordshire birth-place. That had to change, but awe was the main reason why I did it.

Awe

Bear with me, please, while I talk about awe for a bit. The explanation of why comes at the end.

I think cycling is a good thing. It saves you money, it saves you time and it gets you fit. But the general idea of cycling somewhere is not awesome to me. For me, there’s no awe to be had in cycling down to New Cross. There might be fear – of the traffic, for example – but there’s no awe. I’m not struck dumb with wonder at my achievement when I step off the bike at Kismet Supermarket. I could imagine being awed by someone else cycling to New Cross – if they pedalled with their hands, say – but, because I’ve cycled that kind of distance thousands of times since I learnt to ride a bike, it’s no longer awesome for me. It might have been awesome when I was six, but not now.

This tells us two things: that awe is personal to us and that awe never stays still. My awesome isn’t your awesome and my past awesomes are no guide to my future awesomes. On the day of departure, sitting in my friend’s kitchen with a cup of tea, I was still awed by the prospect of cycling around Britain. I was probably still awed by it right up until I made it back to Sanford, gradually growing in confidence as I went. Now it is a past awesome, something I’m proud of, but not something that I’d be awed into doing again.

So here’s the why of the trip: somehow I picked up the crazy idea of cycling around the country. It was nothing more than that: a crazy idea. But the idea stuck. And the more I thought about it, the more it filled me with awe. The feeling is at least two-parts terror to one-part wonder and manifests itself as a tingling sensation in my balls (I’m sure there’s a female equivalent). And I know that, when I get this feeling, my future will be nothing more than a series of craven apologies if I don’t act on it. If I’d just cycled to New Cross, I wouldn’t be writing about it on this blog. It doesn’t interest me. Awesome, on the other hand, does.

Note: I’m not saying you should think I’m awesome, by the way. Like I said, awesome is personal, it’s all relative. Now I’ve done it, I myself wouldn’t be awed by someone who’s cycled around Britain. And even if you’ve never done anything like this, maybe you couldn’t give a toss. Maybe you reckon it was a shocking waste of time and money. That’s fine. This is about your personal awesome, not mine.

Awesome Barriers

Inspiration, admiration and achievement are all connected and they are all connected by your own personal definition of awesome. You are inspired by awesome things. You admire people who do awesome things. And awesome, because of its fear-inducing properties, is always an achievement.

Not all achievements are awesome, of course. Achievement is simply what happens when you overcome a barrier. Driving a car, for me, is no longer an achievement. It’s easy. I can never unlearn it, as much as I might wish to. It has become automatic, and an automatic action is never an achievement to the person doing the doing. When I was seventeen, driving was definitely an achievement – hell, getting the damn thing out of the garage was a bloody achievement! There’s got to be some sort of barrier to an achievement – and the awesome is always blocked by the biggest barriers.

Believe it or not, there is an ugly brute of a barrier sitting right in front of me on my desk: a humble pot plant. The man who sold it to me told me that I should re-pot it soon, otherwise it will suffocate and die. That was two weeks ago. It’s not that I’ve been too busy, it’s just that I’ve never re-potted a plant before: a nasty little barrier. But if I can overcome that barrier (before the plant dies, ideally), then I’ll be as contented as anything: I will have achieved something worth achieving.

Now I’m not saying that re-potting a plant is awesome, but if you ratchet up that achievement, from re-potting the plant on my desk up to, say, planting a new forest in the City of London, there is a point at which the task becomes so daunting, the barrier to achievement so high, that it can be called awesome.

That point will be different for everyone, of course. We all have different barriers at different heights. This is why even our greatest heroes can have heroes themselves, even Bob Dylan has Woody Guthrie. In the 1950s, Woody had already achieved young Bob’s vision of awesome, so he won his admiration as well. The best news about this is that it’s a virtuous circle. Woody inspired Bob to achieve awesome for himself, and he in turn has inspired generations of singer-songwriters to do the same (for better or worse). By following your inspiration and overcoming your barriers, you become an inspiration yourself.

Achieving Awesome

More good news: awesome isn’t necessarily difficult and in many cases it is laughably achievable.

There are a lot of things we don’t do simply because we’ve never done them before, like me and my suffocating pot plant. This is easy awesome territory. There are also a lot of things we don’t do because we’re frightened of them for no good reason. For me: making money, meeting strangers, falling in love or facing a crowd. It follows that I’m not very good at these things because I’m scared to try. But the truth is that there’s nothing inherently difficult about meeting strangers. If I could only overcome my pathetic social-fear barrier, I could pick up a pretty easy awesome, by making a few friends, or even by falling in love.

But there’s another kind of awesome as well, the kind of awesome that pushes something you are already very good at. We’ve had easy awesome, so let’s call this one epic awesome. For me: to go from writing novels in my bedroom to selling best-sellers in Hollywood. In many ways, this is the most productive strain of awesome. This is the way cures for cancer are found, the way revolutions change regimes, the way cooperatives are built.

But don’t underestimate the power of the easy awesome and doing something for the first time. I will never cycle one hundred miles in a day for the first time ever again. I will never free-wheel downhill at 43.2 mph for the first time ever again. I will never sleep rough for the first time and have a slug splat across my face for the first time ever again.

That first time breaks the barriers. It is a dopamine rush that we spend the rest of our lives pursuing, but will never recapture. It is the inspiration that drives further achievement. The first time opens up worlds. I can never go back to a time when I didn’t play guitar, when I didn’t write lyrics to silly songs and make even sillier videos for them. Now I can never go back to a time when I wasn’t a round Britain cyclist. The first time makes possibilities possible. Now I can plan more long-distance cycle trips, I can look at a map of Scandinavia and think: “Yes, that is possible.”

That first time also pushes our threshold of awe further forward. I’ll have to go further and deeper to find my next cycling awesome. However, this constantly moving threshold of awe means that it’s also very easy to become blind to our own awesomeness.

Cautionary tale: A couple of thousand miles into my four thousand mile trip, I was totally inured to the awesomeness of cycling seventy or eighty miles in a day. In fact, I was feeling a little down that I was barely halfway and I’d already been going for a month. That evening, I met some Swiss girls in a hostel in Oban and we chatted, as you do, about our respective travels. I was awed to hear that they’d been working for six months in Glasgow, thousands of miles from their homes, to learn a foreign language, English. But they were equally astounded that I’d cycled sixty miles that day. To me, it seemed a bit on the low side, but their awe allowed me to reflect on what I’d done so far and I was able, once more, to enjoy my achievement. It can be hard to feel our own awesomeness when we are always pushing for more.

Living the Awesome Life

Awesome burns memories deep into your hippocampus. You never forget awesome. I stopped for dinner one evening at an eco-hostel in East Yarde in Devon and I got chatting to the owner, another David. He told me about a cycle trip he’d done from Beijing, through Tibet, all the way to India. His eyes shone and his beard bristled as he talked about cycling through paddy fields, crossing the Himalayas and escaping from the Chinese secret police. It was as if he’d just got back that morning, so I asked him when it was: 1986. He hadn’t done another trip since, but he said that never a day goes past without him thinking about that cycle ride twenty-five years ago. It still inspires him, a well-spring of joy that will never run dry.

This story probes deeper into the nature of awesome. Why did this other David not feel the need to go on another cycle trip? The answer is that a trip like cycling through China, or cycling around Britain, is discrete. It has a very defined beginning and end. It is a wonderful learning experience, but it shouldn’t be confused with life. Chinese cyclist David made his trip, learnt his lessons and kept his memories, but his life is dedicated to sustainable tourism. This is his life’s epic awesome, the awesome that others benefit from, the awesome that will be left behind in other people’s memories. This sort of awesome is built gradually. Not every day can be escaping from Chinese secret police.

By following life-goals that provoke feelings of fear and wonder, like setting up a sustainable eco-hostel in the nowhere of Devon, you will be living the awesome life. And, by living the awesome life every day, like this other David, awesome achievements will naturally follow. You will astonish yourself and become an inspiration to others.

Never forget that you might be blind to your own awesomeness. Just living here on Sanford puts you into a bracket of awesome that most people won’t have the fortune of experiencing – unless you spread the good news.

For me, amazing isn’t enough any more. I want awesome.


* If you want an idea of how far 4,110 miles is, take a plane from Heathrow to New Delhi, in India. Or, if you prefer, to Chicago in the US. It’s far. If I’d cycled east instead of in a circle, I would have made it to Iran.

If anyone is planning a cycle trip and wants to discuss the practicalities and psychologies of long-distance cycling, then please get in touch.

On this trip, I took a photograph every 10 miles. You can see them all, sped up to an equivalent 72,000 mph, in a four-minute video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvNRY-KpmNQ

This article was first published in The San, the magazine of Sanford Walk Housing Cooperative. I have no idea why it wasn’t also published here at the time I wrote it! Better late than never.

9 Precious Ps of Long Distance Bike Rides (and other expeditions)

Patience

You can’t rush around Britain. Even if you rush one day, you’ve still got hundreds, thousands of miles still to go. There’s no point. If you try and rush, then you’ll just lose heart (and probably do yourself an injury). You’ve also got to keep your patience when things go wrong. When it rains, when your bike breaks in half, when you get lost. It doesn’t matter. Just calm down and ask someone to help you.

Perseverance & Persistence

There is nothing remarkable in a philatelist who has collected one stamp. Long distance bike rides are the same. There is nothing remarkable in one day’s ride, it is only by persisting through day after day after day of rain and pain that you’ll reach your goal.

Prosperity

I don’t mean you have to be super-rich to go on a long expedition. But you do need to have money. Taking three months off work to do something like this is already a big financial commitment. And you don’t want to be scared of spending money on a lot of food, between £10 and £20 per day, even if you go to supermarkets. If you’re not wild camping, then that’s another £20 to £40 per day on accommodation. You’ll also want to put aside a few hundred pounds for bike repairs and maintenance, just in case. You could easily find yourself £1000 out of pocket without even thinking about it.

Physical Fitness

This is an important one, but also a misleading one. Cycling gets you fit. But: cycling long distances every day will not feel good and you won’t feel fit, at least to begin with. You’ll probably feel rubbish. Personally, I’m five days in and I can hardly walk, my knees are in pain and my neck and back ache. Anticipate it and forget about it.

Planning & Preparation

Planning, the art of plotting out a route or coming up with a cycling concept, is hugely overrated. The chances are that all your plans will be thrown off the bike as soon as you get on it. Preparation, on the other hand, the art of ensuring that you have the right equipment to be able to handle these capricious changes of plan, is worth investing time and resources in.

Purpose & Pride

If you don’t have a strong purpose for doing your bike ride, then you might find it mentally tough to keep going. However, you’ll soon find that pride takes over. As long as you can’t think up an excuse to all those people back home you told about your expedition, then your pride will keep you purposelessly pedaling.

And so back to my purposeless pedaling!

p.s. I’m in Burnham Deepdale, in Norfolk. Done about 325 miles so far…