Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

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

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR SUPPORT >> FOLLOW BETH and DAVE ON TWITTER!

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.
Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

Leafy Calais
“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

Beth and Me trolley Calais
“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Garder coûte que coûte...
Home, sweet home…

Humanity is Easy: Supporting Migrants in Calais

Over the New Year break, me and some friends went over to visit the Calais migrants. We brought over 200kg of clothes, tents and blankets to distribute around the jungles and squats, where over two thousand people from Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflict zones, live in what can only be described as icy squalor. On the 31st, we used funds we’d raised in the UK to help throw a New Year’s party for around two hundred people – migrants, activists and local Calaisians – in the Galloo squat, with dancing, fireworks and cake.

Beth in the back of the van Calais

Now, though, I want to take this opportunity to inveigle my way into your brain and, using the power of hypnotic suggestion, to cajole you into visiting Calais for yourself. I promise you an experience you cannot – and will not wish to – forget.

“But there’s no point me going over – I wouldn’t know what to do or say!”

You don’t have to do or say anything. We’re all the same, we’re all humans and we could be Calais migrants tomorrow, living on the streets in freezing temperatures without food, shelter or running water. Besides, as much as I try to be useful over in Calais, I feel that I get way more out of every trip than I can ever offer. I hear stories that make my synapses struggle and tales that make my teeth chatter. The least I can do is be a friend.

On New Year’s Eve, we’re chatting to a Syrian guy who was planning to cross the Channel in a dinghy that night. “It’s my last chance,” he says. “It’s the last night of the holidays, there will be less shipping traffic, less security.” The weather is calm too; he can escape before the high winds return. “I grew up next to the Euphrates, where I would swim against the currents, so I’m a strong swimmer,” he says. “And the boat has three chambers, so I have three chances if there is a puncture.”

But he doesn’t have a life jacket. We offer him money to buy one, but he refuses our help. “I used to give money to charity,” he says. “I find it difficult to take charity.” Some activists try to convince him to stay, to wait until he’s got a life jacket, until he’s got a winter wetsuit, until he gets some sea flares, until he’s got a support team who can call the coastguard if – or when – he gets into trouble. As we talk, he tells us his story.

In Syria, he’d been tortured by the regime. He shows us deep burn marks on the fingers of his right hand. “They knew I was an artist,” he explains, “so I couldn’t do my work.” He tells us how they would force him underwater for minutes at a time, but he grew up diving in the Euphrates and could hold his breath for longer. “They couldn’t take my soul,” he says, “because I was a bigger asshole than them!” He laughs – now – and we laugh too.

Living in Damascus, he’d literally looked death in the eye. “I saw the shell coming towards me,” he says. “It was like in the Matrix, you know? When the bullet ripples the air?” We nod. “It landed six metres from me, but only my face was covered in dust.” Another time, he was standing on a hill to get phone reception to call his mother and father in a different part of the city. “I heard the thump, thump of the shells,” he says. “I waited for the whistle – when you hear the whistle, then you know that you are dead.” He looks at us urgently. “I would never wish it on my worst enemy, that feeling when you hear the whistle. I listened. Then I hear the whistle. I know that I am dead.” He survived again, one lucky asshole, and left his country to find another land where he could work without fear and live without death.

But when he got to Calais, he found something else. “I used to believe that I was better than the other migrants,” he says. “I used to have respect for the police. I don’t want to run away from them, like the other migrants.” He’s proud of the fact that he’d got from Syria to France without paying the mafia or people traffickers. “I used to think I was better than the other people, but now I see that I am not. We are all the same. The police treat us all the same, with beatings and pepper spray,” he says. “That has changed me. Now I see how the activists have a hug for everyone, no matter who you are. You can be black, white, Arab, Christian, Muslim – it doesn’t matter.”

I lower my head when I hear him say this, some wash of tears in my heart. I’ve done nothing except be there; listening, giving a shit. That’s all that’s needed. Don’t underestimate your power to be there. It’s amazing how much how little is.

“I used to want to get to England, get my papers and start a normal life,” he continues. “But my experience has changed me. Now I want to get to England, get my papers and – insha’allah – come back to Calais and be an activist.” He smiles. “I want to be a pain in the ass for the Queen.”

We do manage to convince him to join the New Year’s Eve party at Galloo. He’ll be trying to cross the Channel again soon – this time with a life jacket, he promises.

Beth and Nahir Tioxide

What can we do now?

If you want to go to Calais, then go! Get in touch with Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 7 53 47 51 59 or with me directly in the comments below. Tents, sleeping bags and shoes are the best things to take over there right now.

BONUS: The Daily Mail Migrant Solidarity Tour!

This is the funniest shit that has ever happened in history. The Daily Mail are kindly offering to support activists going over to Calais to help migrants. I know, right?! Hilarious. If you go to http://dailym.ai/1HnZmkE, you can get a massive discount on return ferry tickets from Dover to Calais – £1 for foot passengers, £15 for a car and four people or £17 for an overnight return for a car and four passengers. Plus you get a free bottle of wine to share with your new migrant friends!

I’m definitely going to take advantage of the immigrant-hating perversity of The Daily Mail before the offer expires on the 1st of February. Give me a shout if you want to join us!

Happy New Year!

Do We Need Borders?

You might have seen some stories in the news recently about illegal immigrants trying to get into the UK. I recently spent some time in Calais, teaching English and generally hanging out with the wannabe immigrants there. I was staying with about sixty people in a squat originally set up by an activist group called No Borders, whose aim, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the dismantling of all national borders.

One migrant, who grew up in London, but is illegal there and had recently been deported, asked me: “What’s with all this No Borders stuff? Why do you bother? It’s obviously not working.”

It’s a good question, until you see that it’s loaded. You might as well ask why the government bothers with borders, because they’re obviously not working either.

Do we need borders? A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.
A barricade in Calais set up to defend against border police.

Borders aren’t working

Borders aren’t working for the hundreds of people killed every year trying to break into Fortress Europe, fleeing civil conflicts frequently armed by UK arms dealers. They’re not working either for the thousands of lives suspended in the limbo of Calais and places like Calais. These are human lives we have branded illegal and forbidden from working, forbidden from rebuilding their shattered dreams and contributing to their new society. Because, like it or not, these people aren’t going anywhere; they’ve got nowhere to go.

The borders are not working, you could also argue, for the people they are supposedly designed to protect. How are British jobs safeguarded by borders, when a transnational, borderless corporation like Amazon can suck our small businesses into the void, while contributing next to nothing to our society? How are British lives safeguarded by borders, when borderless ideologies – religion, politics – can twist minds and precipitate outrageous acts of violence from within?

In this article, I will ask: Do we even need borders?

Do we need borders? The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.
The sign leading to the border at the port of Calais.

Why do we have national borders?

National borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars. They evolved to deal with a very specific problem: How can we divide nation states? You need borders.

Before the World Wars, there were only a scattering of recognised nation states – France, the United Kingdom, Germany and so forth – the rest of the world was divided among those nation states according to Empire. While the First World War was essentially the violent collapse of the imperial world order, the Second World War was the battle to decide what system would fill the void – nation states – and where the borders would be drawn.

From the end of the Second World War, for reasons of geopolitical organisation, every corner of the earth had to have a sovereign master, demarcated by borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn with indelible marker by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

My point: National borders were not and are not the “natural” way of breaking up territory. They were arbitrary servants to the invented political idea of the nation state. We only need borders because we have nation states.

Do we need borders? Map of border defences between Britain and France
The Channel: The final frontier of the Schengen Zone.

What is a nation state?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation state is:

An independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically).

I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

To give you a guide of how ludicrous the idea is that a state-sized territory would have this mythical common national identity: at the time of the French revolution only half the population of France spoke any French at all. Some national identity, eh! France has taken hundreds of years to evolve a national identity. It’s too much to go into detail here about whether it was worth it or not.

My point: Nation states are not the “natural” way of organising ourselves politically and the global creation of nation states after the Second World War has been nothing less than catastrophic. If we didn’t have nation states, we wouldn’t need borders.

Do we need borders? We want freedom
Activists raise a sign: “We Want Freedom”.

What’s the problem with nation states and their fixed borders?

Basically, if arbitrary borders don’t fit perfectly with mythical national groupings, then we’ve got trouble.

Entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq – scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged – in South Africa, in Brazil, in the United States – could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

Do we need borders? "Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible."
“Everything is improbable, nothing is impossible.”

But borders are a good thing!

Borders have been nothing more than an attempt at a solution to a problem of politics. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world – remember that, in a generation, wars went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in the scale of geopolitics and required a radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could argue that borders have been a decent solution to that problem. For many, particularly those in the west, the world has effectively been at peace since the Second World War. A strange thing to say, but I am not completely naïve. Considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: There is no natural law that commands we live with borders. For most of human history, we didn’t have or need borders.

Do we need borders? "No one is illegal. We are all equal."
“No one is illegal. We are all equal.”

So do we need borders?

In a world where corporations and ideologies are borderless, are national borders, where we can restrict only the movement of people and goods, still the best solution?

I’ll let you make your mind up. Ultimately, whatever your viewpoint, we’re on the same side. This is a race to find a solution to a problem of politics. Perhaps the governments of nation states will find a solution that works for everyone. Or perhaps the solution will come from elsewhere, from groups like No Borders.

But who cares where the solution comes from? The important thing is that we try to find one, because what we have now isn’t working.

Do we need borders? A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.
A manhole cover announces the presence of No Borders.

Gravel Beach, Lac de Saint-Cassien

The only signs that someone has been here before us are bird prints in the sand and a discarded washing machine. Trudging mud tracks here, through brushwood and whipping growling tearing underwood. The sun is sitting on a hill of scrubbed trees. Clouds push and pull themselves into streaks and whips. Abandoned boats tug the shoreline, resting to be used. A skiff scuds the surface, sculling past. We take our place on gravel beach, the sound of the road opposite a white noise from a far far away world.

Two fishermen are hunting into hiding. A dragonfly helicopters past our tent at night, a huge hanging thing of wings and tail. Wasps thrive on our trashy sweetness. An oil drum rolls on the shore, waiting for a fire or flotation. Cork driftwood litters the gravel, playfully begging a seating. Roots poke up through the floor, between the shards of glass. A jerry can of plastic sits on our gravel beach, with tin can lids and a discarded boat seat, shoved into a hole. There’s a hole in the ground: fill it with rubbish, sandals torn at the toe.

A rower pulls her way past at fifteen strokes per minute, coursing the multicoloured lake, from white-frozen ice to deepest darkest blackest black. She rows into silhouette, a Baskerville barks at her. Dogs in the shallows shake off spray, which mists around them in the low-light like the halos of mystical hounds.

Tranquillity splendours over the lake, where electricity pylons hang. Mountains range, back-layering the scene, trees and television towers. The sun bleeds into the sky. The two fishermen will be joined in the night-time by trance music and a female. Mating will be performed, doubtlessly.

The lake little laps at my feet, dusty rocks beneath my behind and sand under my tread. The roll of the road and the wind in the leaves of the trees blow like static. Ripples ripple on the lake, broken by the ducking dive of the fish, sometimes a plip of a plop, sometimes an almighty splash of leviathan. A wasp bothers my typewriter. The moon curves and daggers into the tree horizon, its mirror in the lake slipping to the shoreline. I smell Egypt, the freshwater seaside, broad water, blowing with the wind-waves: your way, my way.

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.