Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Today is the final day of the epic seven week cycling relay fundraiser that is Thighs of Steel.

At about 5pm, the latest peloton of steely thighed cyclists will sweep into Athens, hot, sweaty and exultant after an 85km day’s ride – the culmination of a journey that started 4,600km ago in London.

The bike ride, and the 80-odd riders thereon, have already smashed their target of raising £50,000 to pay the bills at refugee community centre Khora – and are pushing on to beat the record set last year of over £100,000.

These are the numbers. On the face of it, they sound very impressive. But, let’s be honest, there are more efficient ways of raising money for charity. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: A Community on Wheels

Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

How do you sum up two weeks of doing almost nothing but cycling and refuelling?

We’ve cycled from Ljubljana in Slovenia, through the hills of Croatia, the plains of Hungary and the free ice creams of Romania to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s about 80 miles a day for 12 days, with one day off in the middle to stumble around Timisoara in a daze and eat.

Sitting here now, in the cool of the shade of a fig tree, it’s time to wonder what will stay with me. Memories being what they are, what I write in the next 20 minutes may very well come to define my whole experience. So strap on your safety goggles and let’s see what comes. Continue reading Thighs of Steel: Ljubljana to Sofia

A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

0505: Wake up needing the toilet. Hold it in.
0515: Alarm. Switch off with eyes tightly shut.
0520: Open eyes. Stretch out back in child’s pose on air mattress. Fantasise about a spa day. Search for glasses.
0525: Struggle into shorts from yesterday. They are damp. Start packing away unused sleeping bag. Keep searching for glasses.
0530: Pack away sleeping mat and other camping detritus in hope of finding glasses.
0535: Emerge from the tent into the morning dew. Wipe hands on grass and rub into face. Fetch shovel and biodegradable toilet paper from Calypso (the van) and find a suitable patch of ground for the morning constitutional. On the way back, make a cursory hunt for glasses.
0536: FIND GLASSES! Conclude that today will be a good day. Continue reading A Morning in the Life of a Steely Thighed Cyclist

A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

Here I present to you a user’s guide to cycling (with a bicycle) in Athens, Greece. The guide is presented in no particular order and intends to offer bicyclopaedic information on Athenian attitudes, traffic, roads and even the mythical cycle lane(s).

Last update: July 2018. Continue reading A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

Travelling by bike is a dream, travelling with a bike is goddam nightmare – if (like me a week ago) you don’t know what you’re doing.

This is a recollection of my ‘with bike’ journey from London to Patras in Greece, via Paris, Milan and Brindisi. The trip took 5 hot days in July 2018, encompassing 3 trains through France and Italy, and 1 ferry across the Adriatic. Along the way, I got to see plenty of Paris, a little of Milan, and probably too much of Brindisi’s gelaterias!

Before I left, I searched everywhere for information about travelling across Europe with a bike and, although I found plenty of Official Rules,  I couldn’t find anything like this – a straight-forward guide written by a cyclist who’d actually been there and done it.

I was pretty stressed on this journey simply because I didn’t know how much to trust the Official Rules – will Eurostar mistakenly send my bike to Brussels? will there be enough space on the TGV in among justifiably irate commuters? will my bike bag be 12cm too long? and will I be sent directly to jail without passing go by an over-officious guard?

Hopefully this guide will ease your troubled mind because this journey IS EASILY DONE. Continue reading London to Greece via Paris, Milan and Brindisi with (but not by) a bike

Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

The Top Line

A bivvy bag is not much more than a waterproof sack for you to sleep inside. Despite that unpromising description, bivvying is a superb alternative to full-blown tent-based camping – especially when weight or discretion is important.

Without exaggeration, a bivvy bag could completely transform your vagabonding – as one did mine 7 years ago.

The following is the mother lode of lessons that I’ve learnt over dozens of bivvying adventures since 2011. Take all this advice with many pinches of low-sodium salt, and find your own way. Continue reading Brilliant Bivvying: The Mother Lode of Wild Camping Advice

Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

In 2016 I embarked on the somewhat ambitious target of cycling from London to Syria, reporting on the refugee ‘crisis’ from the saddle of my bicycle. In 46 days, I got as far as Vienna, before rushing back to work on Foiled at the Edinburgh Festival. It was a busy summer!

I always said that I’d carry on the cycle some day. Well, some day has arrived. Continue reading Cycling to Syria – Back in the Saddle!

Biking Bournemouth-Bristol

Instead of slogging across the M4 corridor from London to Bristol, I took a one day flying-cycle across three counties from Bournemouth to Midford.

If I needed any reminder of why Britain is the most beautiful country to traverse, then I got it. I haven’t always thought this way about our shores, always wanting to be elsewhere and ideally elsewhen. But what better place is there than right here? Continue reading Biking Bournemouth-Bristol

Camber Sands ride details

The sun will surely shine on Camber Sands, a beautiful strip of dunes on the south Sussex coast. It’s a moderately hilly ride from London on a mixture of country lanes and (hopefully quiet) A roads, through the beautiful High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s 70 miles from Greenwich to the coast, with an option to join the ride at Sevenoaks for a 45 mile ride. Continue reading Camber Sands ride details

Engineering Work Stops Play

So, the idea was to ride to the beautiful beach at Camber Sands on the first day of summer. A quick double-check of the return trains before we set off threw our plans into disarray with the dreaded words Rail Replacement Bus Service. Now, we’re tough, but not tough enough to cycle back after a 70+ mile ride. So we’re postponing the Camber Sands ride – keep an eye out for updates.

On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

Our journey along the storm-swollen Danube threads through castle-and-schnapps country into Austria. The further we cycle on this ride across the continent, the more we see how urgently Europe needs a plan, not only to cope with the influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, but to deal with widening social divisions that have little to do with migration. Continue reading On the walls of Zollamtsstrasse refugee camp

From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

Since leaving London at the beginning of May, we’ve cycled about a thousand kilometres through England, France and Belgium, talking to residents and refugees about how their lives have been changed by migration.

It felt like France and Belgium (the less said about the UK the better) are socially and politically unable or unwilling to accept refugees wholeheartedly, but are trapped by international conventions into providing shelter and survival.

The result is an embarrassment for everyone: refugees packed away into buildings, containers or tents on the outskirts of towns and villages, with some eking out an uncertain existence in the asylum system for a decade or longer. Continue reading From containers to computers: the challenges of refugee integration in Germany

#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum. Continue reading #34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

#25 Heidelberg Helps

Heidelberg feels less a town and more a university campus. Arriving from the industry laden north, we’re suddenly in the land of bicycles, scrubbed smiles and yoga mats. Heidelberg has a population of 150,000, a third of which are students. In the summer, they’re replaced man-for-man by tourists, gaggling in the cobbled streets, selfying under the Schloss and monkeying around with the Heidelberg baboon.
Continue reading #25 Heidelberg Helps

They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

A four year old sits on a double bunk bed, his legs tucked under, assiduously scrubbing his remote controlled car with a nail brush. His older brother is crosslegged in front of a small television, watching Japanese cartoons dubbed into Dutch. His father, ginger beard framing blue eyes, offers us tea.

We’re squatting on small square stools around a small square table in the small square room that father and his two sons temporarily call home.

Continue reading They Want Me to Fly Like a Bird: Travels in the Belgian Asylum System

Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Hospitality is a funny game. After stopping at a roadside fruit and veg stand, we set up our Campingaz kitchen in Weissach town square. As C boils some eggs, a young man approaches. In broken German he asks us, ‘Why you cook here? I have kitchen. Come.’
Continue reading Story of the Day #28: Refugee Hospitality

Story of the Day #24: Industrial Germany

The stench should have been a clue. I couldn’t work out whether it was a really foul cesspit, or a really good cheese. Whatever it was, it was strong and it was wafting into our tent.

In the photographs, our camping spot under trees on the banks of the Rhine, water lapping feet away from our… feet, will look romantic. The reality was suffocating, as the effluent sloshed the sulphuric assault past the feeble defences of two lines of canvas.

The signs were clear. After a week of deer frolicking, river burbling, bird tweeting Teuton we were about to enter Industrial Deutschland.

And about time too. So far, I’d seen no evidence that Germans did anything to justify their reputation as Europe’s most productive nation other than their consumption of a prodigious amount of baked goods and ice cream.

The change was immediate and well coordinated, like when the school bell goes to end playtime and everyone starts belching noxious fumes into the air.

The only thing that I knew about Worms was that a treaty had been signed there in the eighteenth century. I assumed, therefore, that modernity had yet to arrive, as if a mention in a history book was sufficient to hold back the exploitation of saltpeter and the discovery of cement.

Scores of chemical laden lorries, a horizon pricked with chimneys, complexes cased in steel piping and a constant drizzle put paid to those ideas. There was even a warning that cyclists should wear helmets. We had breakfast in a graffiti spewed motorway underpass.

I suppose it’s all understandable: heavy industry demands a lot of water and the Rhine has been a faithful servant to the landlocked southwest.

But all is not lost for the passing tourist. On the other side of a four lane highway in the riverside town of Ludwigshafen sat an unmissable attraction, a must-see museum, a touristic temptress: the BASF Visitor Centre.

Ducking inside from the continuing drizzle, decked head to foot in Decathlon’s finest waterproofing and several local varieties of mud, we enjoy the appreciative attentions of a sixth form chemistry school trip. Ignoring the less politely stifled sniggers, we muster as much self-respect as the puddles under our feet will allow and present ourselves at the reception desk. ‘We are visitors and we are at the visitor centre. What happens now?’

What happened then was a very expensively assembled version of that bit in chemistry when your teacher tried to convince you that science was FUN. We learnt how to cook the perfect steak by exploiting the Maillard reaction, investigated the properties of cobalt with anti-radioactive gloves and set off a rocket by cleaving water into gaseous hydrogen and oxygen.

In among the fun and games, we learnt how BASF stands for Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik (I even had a glass of soda water) and how BASF Ludwigshafen is the world’s largest integrated chemical complex, with over 2000 buildings covering 10sqkm. Their overground piping, arranged more creatively, could carry soda water from here to Seville.

We could watch archive footage of their history and swish interactive interfaces over their future as BASF heroically struggle with balancing the needs of the economy, the environment and society.

As we enviously watched a gaggle of US students (what were they doing there??) cooing over a console that showed you what you might look like with different hair styles, I started to wonder whether there was more to this outing than a three minute steak and a cut and blow dry.

A lot of money had been spent on this visitor centre. It had even won awards for its creativity. But there was something else in the air: not quite the gangrenous lung-stopper that accompanied our slumbers, but something not quite freshened by the fancy display panels and interactive modules. The faint but unmistakeable smell of greenwash.

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

The Grande-Synthe migrant camp in Dunkirk is to the Calais jungle as Milton Keynes is to London. Where Calais is only now having order imposed on a meandering medieval street plan, Grande-Synthe has been ordered from conception to execution. The result is that the two migrant communities could not feel more different. Continue reading Grande-Synthe & Calais: Compare and Contrast

Conversations in Calais

We are currently holed up in Petite Fort Philippe, equidistant from both Calais and Dunkirk, home to two of the largest migrant camps in Northern France. Yesterday we visited Calais, my first trip back there since the mass demolitions that have devastated the bustling shanty town. Continue reading Conversations in Calais

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.
Continue reading Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

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?
Continue reading Seacycles III: London to Brighton Night Ride

The Magic of Midnight

It’s the first overnight bike ride since SeaCycles began, and we meet at midnight at Monument, ready to cycle all night to the coast. I am feeling groggy after a brief two hour nap, David has been in the pub, and Paul has just arrived on a train from Brighton – for him, this is a cycle ride home. Continue reading The Magic of Midnight

Cycling to(wards) Syria

This May, I shall set off on a 3,000 mile bicycle tour, following the routes of migration from the safe refuge of London to the bombed-out streets of Syria. [footnote]Don’t worry: safety is my first priority. I am fully expecting never to reach Syria, but that is my destination of the mind.[/footnote]

Along the way, I shall be collecting stories direct from the mouths of migrants, aid workers, government officials and local residents, using each interview to inform the course of the journey, and sharing these stories with as wide an audience as I can, in written word, photography, audio, and video.

Continue reading Cycling to(wards) Syria

Whitstable Ride

“There will only be three of us tomorrow, so we’re meeting at Cutty Sark at 10am”.

Thus Anna emailed me in response to my last-minute enquiry, to join her & David’s second monthly cycle-ride to the coast. I’d been on the first ride too with six other riders, and we’d pedalled through a great deal of cold & rain but with a tailwind to Southend, and then pranced around briefly in the chilly sea. Continue reading Whitstable Ride

Riding to Shoeburyness

10am, London Bridge. A motley crew of cyclists gathers, dressed head to toe in waterproofs. At least one of us was wondering why we’d bothered to come out on such a horrible day in order to ride 50 miles in the rain. But I had promised cookies, and was the only one who knew the way, so there was no option but to turn up dressed for the weather (meaning, TWO waterproof jackets). Continue reading Riding to Shoeburyness

February ride: Whitstable

Our next ride will be to the Kent coastal town of Whitstable, famous for its oysters, castle and boat-strewn beach.

Date: Sunday 28th February

Time: Meet 9.30am

Location: London Bridge, just outside Evans Cycles (corner of Tooley St)

Distance: 62 miles

Projected arrival time: Approximately 5pm

Return journey: Trains depart twice an hour and take an hour and a quarter to reach London Cannon Street or St Pancras / Stratford

What to bring: lights for your bike, snacks for the journey, togs for swimming, cash for fish & chips

What to expect: A small, friendly ride at conversational pace. The route is on a mixture of roads and traffic-free cycle paths. If we reach Whitstable at low tide we can walk out on ‘The Street’ sand spit. If it’s high tide we’ll swim in the cold cold waves!

Shoeburyness ride details

Date: Sunday 31st January

Time: Meet 9.30 for a 10am departure (early arrivals will be rewarded with tea* and cookies) *bring your own tea

Location: Meet on London Bridge, just outside Evans Cycles (corner of Tooley St). This ride may finish in the dark so make sure you and your bike have lights.

Distance: 50 miles, roughly

Projected arrival time: Depending on size and ability of group, between 3pm and 5pm.

Return journey: Trains depart from Shoeburyness every half hour and take just over an hour to reach Liverpool Street (Cost: £12.50).

To whet your appetite, here is a blog Anna wrote about a previous winter ride to Southend.

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 [email protected]

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 [email protected]

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 [email protected] 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!

Battles with bicycle maintenance (and a ghost)

When it comes to bicycle maintenance, I am, by my calculations, precisely halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite.

I am competant enough to be technically able to replace worn brake blocks (those rubber things that stop the bike) (not the soles of your shoes), and yet incompetant enough to be incapable of fitting them so that they both:

a) stop the bike when I squeeze the brake levers

AND

b) don’t rub against the wheel when I’m not squeezing the brake levers.

This second feature of my brake adjustments turns every bike ride into some kind of resistance training. Great for fitness, not so great for getting anywhere faster than a mobility scooter.

The fact that I was able to cycle over 4,000 miles around the coast of Britain (not to mention another 1,500 around Tunisia) is testament more to the robust design of the modern bicycle than to my own skills as roadside mechanic.

Wheeling Adventure

Why do I mention this? Well, in the British Library the other day, I came across a wonderful little pamphlet called Wheeling Adventure, written over sixty years ago by a chap called Frank Urry (the ghost in this tale).

Frank was, at the time of publication in 1951, in his 70s and could justly claim to lived through the very beginnings of what we now know as cycle touring. When he first sat on a bike it scarcely had pedals, let alone brake blocks.

To read his words from beyond the grave, gleaned from over sixty years of cycling, is to recall what a wonder the bicycle is and what joys we spurn when we “motor” instead.

“Why should I want to go swiftly from place to place with but a glimpse at the going? The day is no longer, nor do you crowd more into its hours, except miles, and what use are they if you have missed the sights along them, the music of the winds and birds, the gossip of the wayside people, and the satisfaction of the perfect achievement of your body?”

I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I smugly sat in the library, thighs still warm from the morning cycling up to King’s Cross, surrounded by academics who’d braved instead the morning rush hour.

But my smugness was not to last.

Chattering of neglect

For there followed a passage that really stung my attention, concerning bicycle maintenance:

“Oh! the thousands of bicycles that pass me – that I pass – squeaking, groaning and chattering of neglect, that were once the pride of their owners and are now wrecks of inattention, and all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

Yes, my poor bicycle, the same beast that had carried me gamefully around the coast for two months without so much as a squeak, is now an old nag, scuffling about the streets of London, a bolt or a bearing or a brake or a bracket always only moments from breaking.

Frank’s spirit gently chastises me from across the chasm of years that separates us: “even with disregard and neglect the bicycle still runs, which is surely a proof of its marvellous design and simplicity of construction.

Ouch.

The handicap of this neglect ” he adds, with hint of disdain in his tone, “is the rider’s.

And how right he is! Every time I take to the roads, I am frighteningly aware of a slight antagonism between my chain and my gears. Perhaps one in every hundred turns of the pedal grinds with a nasty gnashing of teeth as the chain skips a link or two, my foot slips forward, the momentum shifts in my hands and I lose momentarily my line on the road. Surely it is only a matter of time before a passing bus or a rubbish lorry decides to take a terminal interest in this careless instability.

Frank talks frankly: “It is so simple and so much neglected, that I often wonder why such a priceless property – or rather a property giving such priceless pleasure – should be so abused.”

I feel quite ashamed that, for my bicycle to whom I owe so much, I do so little. I vow to address its quiet complaints. Tonight.

Bicycle Workshop, Interior, Night

As things stand, I am aware that my bicycle has the following running problems:

  1. The rear wheel wobbles laterally. This, I have been informed by someone less hapless, is a problem with “the cones”. I thought “the cones” were what they put on the side of the road when they’re doing roadworks. I have no idea why or where they might be on a bicycle.
  2. The rear brakes are rubbing against the rear wheel. (When they shouldn’t be.) I am optimistic that this problem might be resolved when I’ve dealt with the cones.
  3. The chain skips too often for my liking (or safety).

Not having a diagnosis for #3 and being optimistic about #2, I decide to tackle #1.

With the help of a bike maintenance manual, some spanners and no little brute force, I successfully dismantle the rear cassette (gears) and get right down to the cones. These are little nuts that keep the all the bits of the axle together and spinning freely, but not too freely. They just need a little tightening, I’m assured, to eliminate that wheel wobble.

So I tighten the non-drive side cone. I can’t get to the other one because something else is in the way. I put the wheel back together and back on the bike. I give it a test spin. Nothing happens. No wobble: good. No spin: bad. I’ve over-tightened the cone.

I pull the whole thing apart again, slightly loosen the cone and put it all back together again. This time the wheel spins: good. And wobbles: bad.

This pattern repeats several times over until eventually the Goblins of Bicycle Maintenance get bored of tormenting me and I have both a spinning and non-wobbling wheel.

I am pleased with myself.

For exactly 30 seconds.

That’s how long it takes for me to realise:

  1. My brakes are still rubbing when they shouldn’t.
  2. My wheel is misaligned to the right hand side.
  3. Some of the spokes are loose.
  4. The tyre is wearing so thin that you can see strands of fabric poking through the rubber from the inside.

It is at this moment that I recall Frank Urry’s words: “…all for the want of a little oil and five minutes of time.”

I have been working on my bike now for well over an hour and, not only is it still a wreck of inattention, it is far more of a wreck of inattention for all the attention that I’ve given it.

Thanks to my lavish attention, I am now fully cognizant of the fact that my bike is a death trap. That tyre is so thin that it would puncture on a cotton bud.

Life after Frank

You must, by now, be wondering at my deluded sense of self-awareness: Halfway between heroic competance and its hapless opposite! With a tyre no thicker than a housemaid’s pinnafore? Pah.

But, dear reader, may I draw your attention to my bed. For lodged neath said furniture, until now only gathering dust, is my answer to the ghost of Frank Urry, tutting and head shaking:

One spare rear wheel – cassette, cones and all.

Which brings me to the lesson of the day: half the battle of competance is carrying spares. Or, as Blue Peter would have it: “Here’s one I made earlier.”

Bicycles, Freedom and Migration

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling…I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride on a wheel. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”

So said Susan B. Anthony, a 19th century American suffragette and social reformer. No wonder that the newly invented bicycle soon became known as the “freedom machine”.

Bicycles give you the freedom and independence to travel long distances without having to rely on stage coaches, horse-drawn carriages or (ugh!) men.

But today’s petrol-fuelled transportation means we’ve forgotten how hard a five mile walk to the local shops can feel. An hour and a half foot-slog is covered in just twenty minutes by bike. That’s the difference between going out and staying in.

For women of the late nineteenth century, the acquisition of a bicycle meant they could travel further to visit friends, go shopping alone or take a job for the first time. The impact of this emancipatory invention cannot be overstated.

(Okay, so maybe the impact of the bicycle can be overstated a little bit: biologist Steve Jones credits the bicycle for the remarkable explosion in diversity of the human gene pool over the last hundred and fifty years. A boast too far?)

Bikes mean freedom for Calais migrants

For the migrants stuck in Calais, the bicycle can have a similar liberating impact. The wasteground where the migrants are ghettoed is more than two miles from the town centre. That means hours of sore-slogging walks every day.

The migrants are not given more than one meal a day at the Jules Ferry Centre. Where can they get the rest of their food? From the town, a five mile round trip.

The camp nurse is only available during restricted hours and not at all on weekends. Where can migrants seek medical help? From the town, a five mile round trip.

Clothes, the library, internet access – all are a five mile round trip away, or more. The most prized possession of many migrants is a decent pair of shoes: they are worn down in a matter of weeks. Many migrants are stuck in Calais for months.

Bicycles are a gift of freedom

But there is more to the liberating powers of the bicycle than the mere practicalities of transportation. As women found in the nineteenth century, bicycles are a gift of freedom.

Migrants in Calais have spent weeks, months and years, slowly making their way north from whatever war-torn country they are fleeing. They have trusted in mafia agents and abandoned themselves to deadly rust-bucket boats in the Mediterranean; they have spent days playing hide and seek with gun-toting border guards and dodging ticket inspectors in train toilets.

Nobody makes such a journey out of choice. Nobody wants to beg and borrow for their lives. A bicycle can give migrants the freedom to go where they want, under their own power – at last! A bicycle gives the gift of self-reliance, independence, autonomy and pride.

(Not to mention that bikes are damn good fun! I watched a group of lads taking it in turns to cycle at giddying speeds round the pretty flower beds of Richelieu Park. The simple pleasures.)

Words are not enough – what can I do about it?

Glad you asked! At the end of August, we’re launching a biketilla (a bike flotilla?) to Calais. On the 29th of August, hundreds of people will be cycling second hand bikes from London to France, leaving the “freedom machines” with migrants in the camp there.

You can join us by attending the Facebook event or by sending a message to humans [at] ukhip.eu. Then just put a call out to your friends for a spare bike and get pedalling!

If you can’t make it on the 29th, then please do consider getting involved in some other way, by sharing the event or by baking us a cake to keep us fuelled! THANKS!

Me and vegan cake

Adventures in Approach and Avoidant Motivation

Have you ever read about approach and avoidant personalities?

This is the idea from psychology that people are born with a tendency to motivate themselves either positively (approaching a goal for its benefits) or negatively (avoiding the harms associated with failure).

Approach: “Cycling around Britain will be the greatest thing that I ever do, I’m going to enjoy every moment!”

Avoidant: “I’d better not screw up this round Britain cycle ride because then I’d look really stupid!”

Stumbling across this concept made me realise that, although I set myself and sometime achieve ambitious goals, I tend to tackle those goals in an avoidant manner.

Cycling around Britain… Really fast.

In 2011, I cycled around Britain. This was, as you can imagine, a stunning experience; rarely a day goes past without a glorious memory or three dropping in to say hi. However: I cycled the 4,110 miles in less than two months, at a frankly absurd speed of over 70 miles a day. I took four rest days and resented each one.

Why? Because I was terrified, all the way around, that I would fail. I wanted to get it done ASAP, so that I could enjoy not having failed!

Cycling to the Sahara… Really slowly

Slightly disturbed by this realisation, the following year I cycled around Tunisia, forcing myself to cycle much more slowly and to really relish the adventure.

As a result, I cycled at about half the speed and took a whopping nine days off in the month. Giving myself that time meant that I fell into all sorts of adventures:

By switching off the avoidant voice in my head, I allowed myself the time to have more adventures, which meant I had a lot more FUN too.

I was successful on this trip, but a lifelong tendency for avoidant motivation is not so easily overturned! It’s something that I have to work at every day.

Do you have an Approach or Avoidant personality?

If you’re approach motivated, then you probably rush into things and get excited by all the great things that will doubtless happen.

If you’re avoidant motivated, then you probably dwell on the things that might go wrong. Like me, you might rush things because you’re scared that you’ll fail.

Other signs that you’re avoidant motivated might include:

  • You dwell on criticism, failure or rejection.
  • You feel shy or anxious, even though you have a strong desire to achieve your goal.
  • You feel inadequate or inferior to others.
  • You’re self-conscious and tend to be self-critical.
  • You use fantasy to evade doing what you meant to do.

If you are avoidant – don’t panic! Me too.

Avoidants of the world unite!

Approachers might be the go-getters of this world, but they’re also the ones whose ancesters ended up between the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger. They’re the stupid, fools-rush-in kinds of people. Avoidants, on the other hand are thoughtful, cautious and good-looking.

It’s also worth pointing out that approach-avoidance is a spectrum; it’s not black and white, either/or. Although I do a really good job at avoiding girls, blazing rows and sabre-toothed tigers, I will approach that Vienetta with all the recklessness of a Neolithic tiger dentist.

So, if you think you’re a tad more avoidant than approach, don’t beat yourself up about how nervous, worried or fearful you get about your goals. It is possible, as I proved with Tunisia, to reframe your adventures away from a focus on avoidance alone. I really had to force myself to slow down, relax and enjoy the weird situations I’d cycled myself into.

Yes, it will always be more difficult for us than for people who were born with approach personalities, but that just means that success will be all the more satisfying for us, glorious avoidants!

Smilodon head
This sabre-toothed cat was not an avoidant personality. And see what happened to him. From Wikipedia so it must be true.

 

Essential Security Feature When Travelling

Last week, I went to a story-telling night in Brixton. I wasn’t expecting it to be open mic. I also wasn’t expecting for my two friends to stand up and tell a story. But least of all was I expecting that, ten minutes later, I’d be standing up in front of fifty strange faces telling a story about – well, about this:



Read more about my little adventures cycling to the Sahara here.

P.S. I have no idea why the Tunisian mafia had Somerset accents.

The Literary Consultancy Manuscript Assessment Review

I know some of you are writers or would like to become writers, whatever that means. One of the problems with writing is that it’s almost entirely subjective. I say almost because there comes a point when the mass of subjectivity is so overwhelming as to become objective. Subjectively, I wasn’t entertained by the first dozen pages of the Harry Potter fiasco. 450 million book sales tells me I’m wrong. Objectively, Harry Potter and his minions are the very definition of excellent writing, writing that captures and holds an audience.

The only problem with this form of objectivity is that it requires a mass, a horde, of subjects. And this horde is precisely what the becoming writer does not, by definition, have. So we have to seek out other subjectivities, expert subjectivities, in the hope that they add up to something like a stab at objectivity.

(I should note that publishers have this exact same problem. Their decision on the worth of a new submission is taken on the basis of a dozen subjective opinions. That’s nowhere near good enough to match the objective opinion of the mass audience out there. Hence why many, many books fail, despite getting the seal of approval from an expert publisher.)

But to get back to the becoming writer. After friends and family, one of the places we can turn for a stab at objectivity is a manuscript assessment service, like The Literary Consultancy. In the spirit of scientific enquiry, I handed over my 257 page manuscript, along with a cheque for £449.75. And I held my breath.

Now, bearing in mind that I’ve scarcely earned £449.75 from my writing ever, that’s an awful lot of money to spend. Why did I do it? Because I had to know. The testimonials from writers who had used the service were glowing. I had to know if The Literary Consultancy could sprinkle the same gold dust on my manuscript as they had on Bruno Cassidy’s. “I can honestly say,” Bruce gushes, “that I received more engaged and positive criticism from him on this story than at any time during a two year part time Creative Writing MA.” I suppose £449.75 is a small price to pay in comparison to funding a two year part time Creative Writing MA.

I waited six weeks for the report. It arrived precisely on time, straight into my email inbox.

It was a touch over ten pages long, as promised – but some of those pages were not filled. It was double spaced. The whole thing totalled 3643 words, each one costing twelve pence. My first thought, on reading, was Have I wasted half a grand on this? I felt blood rush to my cheeks. I closed the email and forgot about it for a week.

After I got back from Calais, I printed the whole thing out and re-read it, with a pen in my hand. There must be some treasure to be found between these pricey pages. It was written by a man who had published books. He had won Wales Book of the Year. The Independent on Sunday had even called his most recent travel book “thorough”. So I dug deep down into his report, determined to uncover the treasure.

NB: From this point onwards, non-serious writers may get bored. Sorry. This isn’t really written for you. For the serious writer, wondering if it’s time to shell out for professional objectivity, I hope you find this report summary useful.


Approach (0.25 pages)

This was a short précis of my story, useful to ensure that he got the gist of what I was trying to do. He did. Phew.

Where am I coming from as a critic? (0.25 pages)

A short biography of the critic, establishing his bone fides as both a writer and a traveller. This made me feel more comfortable that he was a suitable critic for my book. I should say that The Literary Consultancy had given me a choice of two critics, so I had already done some research on the man. This put me at ease.

Opening Remarks (1 page)

This section addressed my cover letter and synopsis, as well as the title and the fact that I look young in my photograph. On the plus side, the manuscript was well laid out and “very professional”. Neither of us liked the title and he suggested a couple of alternatives.

Concept (0.5 pages)

This section placed the manuscript within the wider world of publishing. This is where the central problem with the manuscript was first addressed: “you have to offer something distinctive in delivering the story, to make it a commercially marketable book”. Storm clouds gathering on the horizon.

Technique (1 page)

General comments on style and structure. I have a “breezy no-nonsense prose style”, combined with a very good ear for speech. I’m particularly proud that he says: “There were no significant passages where my interest flagged.” Now there’s a review for the front cover! However, he is right when he says that there is precious little description of landscape and culture in the book. That is a weakness.

The Narrative (3 pages)

This is the meat of the report. Here he gets into more detail about the manuscript, its achievements and its failings. He addresses story-telling style, dialogue, characterisation, use of detail and description. He gives advice on how I could increase the reader’s emotional involvement and interest, through use of more encounters and personal reflection. He even raised the possibility of importing characters from elsewhere, à la Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin… By my honour!

Details (0.5 pages)

This addressed half a dozen typos, factual inaccuracies and general puzzlements. He missed several that I’ve later caught, but this wasn’t supposed to be a proof-reading.

Conclusions (2.5 pages)

Here he tackles the root problem of the manuscript and offers ideas for its development. The question is: “Will your book force its way to the front of the queue?” His answer is no, despite enjoying the story and seeing that I have the skills to write a publishable book. The manuscript as it stands is “a little short of rounded interest”. He urges me to “be more ambitious”, believing that I have “the potential to write at a higher level”. He finishes with a reading list of published books that could hand me the key to this higher plane.


Overall, I would say that the Literary Consultancy report told me nothing of the manuscript that I hadn’t already suspected myself. But I think that is a good sign: it would have been terrible if he’d hated all the parts that I thought were brilliant and vice versa. It shows, at least, that I have an honest eye for my own work.

Where the report hides its genius is in how it has inspired me to go back to the manuscript and improve it. That is what I have paid for, not the words of the report, but the encouragement. That encouragement, from an independent, experienced writer is invaluable.

I have since read and re-read the critic’s words many times and they have been an invaluable guide in my most recent edit of the book. I feel now that I have the thematic structure of a richer dish. The light shone by the report has improved my writing.

Was The Literary Consultancy worth £449.75?

In short: Yes.

Of course, I couldn’t afford to pay this every time I write a book, but perhaps I won’t have to. The report confirmed my suspicions of my literary weaknesses and affirmed the skills I do have as a writer, so perhaps all I will need next time is more confidence in myself.

HELP! Cycling Around Britain Book Title Poll

As you may know, I have recently “finished” my book about cycling 4,110 miles around Britain. The only problem is that I haven’t got a title for it yet. And that’s where YOU come in!

Hopefully you’ve read a bit about the book, but in case you haven’t – it’s a book about cycling that is more about lost love and finding myself again after the death of my grandmother. It was she who inspired me to go on this journey, with the words: “Do it while you can.”

So please give us two seconds of your time and click on as many of the titles below as grab your interest.

[poll id=”2″]

I’ll probably slap in a sub-title as well, probably something like “Four Thousand Miles Cycling Around Britain”.

If you can come up with anything better (I know you can!), then please post them in the comments. You’re the best.

Most Living and the Meaning of Life: Sailing 3,500 Miles for Syria

Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.
Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.

On Saturday the 12th of July, Simon Moore and Maria Gallastegui stepped aboard ‘Rumi’, the sixteen-foot Wayfarer dinghy that they hope will carry them 3,500 miles by sea, from London to Lebanon.

A few hours after seeing them off with a pile of home-baked flapjacks, I joined a thousand other cyclists on a night-long joyride from London Fields to Dunwich, 114 miles away on the Suffolk seashore.

Two journeys: one political, one pointless. Both high on exertion, both involving the sea, both journeys into the unknown, testing our spirit and endurance. But the question is Why?

Why do we do these things?

Simon and Maria are sailing in solidarity with the people of Syria, hoping to raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the disastrous humanitarian crisis that is forgotten in yesterday’s newspaper headlines.

The Dunwich Dynamo, as it’s known, had no such charitable purpose. It was a last-minute decision to do something stupid.

But neither of those responses really answer the question. Why do we do these things?

There are a thousand ways that Simon and Maria could raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the plight of Syrians. So why this way? Why risk their lives doings something that has a high probability of failure and that will likely be forgotten the moment they leave?

There are a thousand ways that I could have spent my Saturday night. So why this way? Why risk my knees doing something that will only hurt and leave me sleep deprived for a week?

It is the purpose of this article to find a better answer this question of why.

Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.
Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.

Albert Camus and The Reason We Don’t Commit Suicide

Albert Camus was, in my opinion, the most successful of the French existentialist authors of the mid-twentieth century (he’d hate me for calling him an existentialist, but that is how he is remembered…). His philosophy, however flawed, at least made a stab at giving us practical answers to the problem of existence. And his works of fiction are streets ahead of Sartre.

Existentialism is most frequently diluted in our collective memories to become a particularly French form of nihilism (he’d hate me even more for associating him with nihilism!). If people make a distinction between the two philosophical schools, it’s mostly by sticking a Gaullois between their lips and shrugging their shoulders. And, unfortunately, nihilism is seen as a highly negative way of viewing existence: there is no purpose to life, existence is pointless, so why bother?

But Camus himself, in the first lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, asked this very question.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

In other words: Why, if there is no purpose to life, do we not just go and kill ourselves? His response, teased out over the course of a hundred pages, is the concept of ‘most living’.

Best Living versus Most Living

The existentialist idea that life is ‘absurd’, that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, means that there can be no such thing as universal morality. The only problem is that this leaves us with no road map for life. Without universal morality, there is no model existence for us to strive to follow: Jesus was just another guy. There is no such thing as ‘best living’.

But the only thing more absurd than the absurdity of life is taking the absurdity of life so seriously that you would kill yourself to avoid it. And, if the course of ‘best living’ is no longer open to us, as it was to our believing forefathers, then the only course of life that we can pursue is ‘most living’.

Most Living at its Most

And this is why we choose to spend twelve hours cycling overnight to the seaside, when we could be asleep and dreaming. This is why we choose to spend six months battling across the high seas in a dinghy with four holes in the hull, when we could just fire off a petition or two to parliament.

It’s not about finding the best way to spend our Saturday night, or finding the best way to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrians – because the mythical best does not exist. It’s about investing in our present moments the most we can. That is all we can do to rage against the absurdity of our life and our inevitable death.

And there was no greater ‘most’ way that I could have spent my Saturday night. There is no greater ‘most’ way for Simon and Maria to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Syria. These are heroic challenges that take every ounce of strength. It is most living at its most.

Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.
Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.

From Theoretical Philosophy to Practical Psychology

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus implores us not to commit suicide, either physical or philosophical. He encourages us to throw ourselves into life with full force: as Don Juan, as Conquering Hero, as Stage Actor – without losing sight of the ultimate absurdity of our actions.

Yes, Camus was an optimist. You may, as a rigorous philosopher, be able to pick holes in his argument. It’s not the most logical I’ve ever heard. But that hardly matters now. What matters is that, half a century later, psychologists are offering some tantalising evidence of quite how accurate his dichotomy between best living and most living was.

Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck has been researching motivation, personality and development for many years, at Colombia, Harvard and now at Stanford. In the course of her research, she has discovered that the human brain approaches the various challenges of life through one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is fixed, it can’t be improved. You’re either born with it, or you’re not.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) I have no artistic talent and I might as well never bother trying to draw an apple every again.

The growth mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is something that you can improve through hard work and practice.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) If I want to be able to draw an apple, all I have to do is put in the hours and practice.

In both cases, the challenge is the same and both people realise that they’re bad at drawing. But only the person with the growth mindset will ever do anything to improve themselves. It gets worse.

It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.
It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.

Fixed Mindset and the Fear of Failure

The fixed mindset also breeds fear: the fear of failure. If intelligence or strength or artistic talent is fixed, then any failure is final. If you have built your self-image around being superb at drawing the still life of an apple – and you lose the annual still life of an apple contest, then what are you? Any opportunity to be judged becomes an existential crisis and you will cease seeking out new challenges. This has the effect of shrinking the fixed mindset’s world until it only participates in the smallest fields of endeavour, where success is guaranteed.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees failure as an opportunity to learn. Any new challenge, opponent or obstacle is great fun because it is only by failing that you are able to improve and grow. A growth mindset says yes to everything, even when failure is almost certain. A growth mindset is greedy for new experiences, for shocks and jolts and tests and obstacles and difficulties.

Growth Mindset and Most Living

The fixed mindset is focussed on judging others and on being judged. Success is measured in concrete successes; a zero-sum game in a finite, competitive world. The growth mindset is focussed on learning and helping others learn. Success is measured in growth; an infinite horizon in a world with so many secrets.

The fixed mindset is obsessed with being the best in life. The growth mindset is obsessed with getting the most out of life. The fixed mindset yearns for a mythical best living. The growth mindset is Camus’ most living.

Which mindset would set you out into the world, sailing 3,500 miles in an absurd attempt to raise awareness of a crisis that you can never alleviate? Which mindset would put you into a thousand-strong bike ride through the night, knowing that you’ll end up with broken knees, sleep deprivation and a £100 taxi fare?

Which mindset would you choose?

Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?
Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?

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!

10 things NOT to take on an epic bike ride

There are a million and one lists of gear that the internet implores you to take on an epic bike ride. I’m not here to add to those mighty fine lists. I’m hear to tell you what to leave behind.

#1 Don’t take your 4×4.

1. A fancy bike. You don’t need it. I’ve cycled over 6,000 miles on my ‘entry-level’ hybrid city bike, everywhere from the Highlands of Scotland to the Sahara.

2. Fancy panniers. You don’t need them. What was good for the school run is probably good for starters.

3. A fancy cycle computer. Sure it’s nice to see the miles click over – but it’s also a massive pain in the ass. Keep your head up, looking at the scenery/traffic – not hunched over your speedo, trying to hit 20mph.

4. Fancy Lycra cycling shorts. You look like enough of a prat. Take a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, for Christ’s sake.

5. Shoes. Chances are where you’re going is gonna get wet at some point. Then you’ll thank me. Note: don’t go barefoot; you’ll bleed everywhere and that won’t be pretty. Wear sandals.

6. A tent, fancy or otherwise. Tents are heavy, man. Even fairly fancy ones. Take a bivvy bag. They roll up to the size of a jacket and they’ll keep you dry at night.

7. A gazillion spares and tools for repairing your bike. Chances are your frame won’t snap in half without any warning and any car mechanic can help you out with tools.

8. A library of maps. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where you’re going. Ask someone. Sure, take a compass if you have to.

9. A pile of money. Cycling is cheap. Sleeping in a bivvy bag is cheap. Beg, steal, borrow. Do whatever you have to do to get started. Once you’ve started, there’s no going back, sucker!

10. Any knowledge whatsoever. I took a one day course in bike mechanics before I left. The only thing I learnt from the session was that my bike was a death-trap and that I wouldn’t survive. To be fair to the instructors, they were correct about the first part – but thank god I didn’t listen to them!

That’s all there is to it.

Feel free to ignore all of these suggestions, especially if you love fancy kit. If you’re skint and just want to get started, then I hope I’ve reassured you: fancy kit is for show-offs.

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.

Refuelling: The Food of Tunisia

Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.

Lemons and garlic at Tunis market
Lemons and garlic at Tunis central market

Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.

1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:

Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.
Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.

2. Tinned tuna:

Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.
Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.

There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.

Fish.
Fish.
Ex-fish.
Ex-fish.

But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.

I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?

Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.

These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.

Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.

Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.

The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.

Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.

Merguez couscous.
Merguez couscous.
Camel couscous.
Camel couscous.

I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.

Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.
Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.

Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:

Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.
Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.

Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.

Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.

Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.
Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.

Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:

Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.
Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.

When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:

Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.
Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.

The Tunisian pasty:

One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.
One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.

And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:

Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.
Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.

Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.

Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.
Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.

Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.

One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.

Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.
Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.

Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.

These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.

Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.
Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.

Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:

A bread oven at a farm.
A bread oven at a farm.

And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:

Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.
Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:

The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.
The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.

When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!

Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.

Salad mechouia - with tuna, of course.
Salad mechouia – with tuna, of course.

And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.

Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.
Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.

But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:

A salad. With tuna, of course.
A salad. With tuna, of course.

A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.

So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.

Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.
Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.

Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.

Cycling to the Sahara: Tunisia after the revolution

The louage driver slaps my hand and gives me a toothy smile. “Ahh, 2011!” he says, then gives me directions to the giant hand-cart.

I’m in Sidi Bouzid. It’s a town in central Tunisia. A working town, like any other. It reminds me of Sfax, only smaller and with zero tourists and zero tourist appeal.

Except for one rather odd monument.

A statue of a fruit and vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid.

In 2010, a streetseller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a government building in Sidi Bouzid. Whatever the truth of his grievance, it was enough to spark riots. These riots blossomed into revolution. And this revolution evolved, mutated and spread: most dramatically into Egypt, most violently into Libya and most notoriously in Syria, where civil war is still bleeding.

So this is the post you’ve all (probably) been waiting for: the revolution one. I’ve waited this long because I didn’t want to make any snap judgements and because I wanted to wait until I’d come to the place where it all began: Sidi Bouzid.

Mohamed Bouazizi: a proud portrait on a rather battered post office.

On the other hand, I could have waited forever to write this post because, frankly, there is no judgement I can make that won’t be so bereft of truth as to be called empty. I’m an outsider, I don’t know what Tunisia is really like after the revolution. I can only say what I see.

I did go to Tunisia while it was still under Ben Ali, in 2008, but that was also only for a month. You can’t get more than a vague sense of a place in a month. So I’m comparing vague sense with vague sense in this post. Furthermore, I have a real problem collecting evidence. The evidence of my own eyes is almost totally without context and the evidence given by others, by Tunisians or by expats, is hard to filter.

These caveats given, I shall proceed with my judgement: what is Tunisia like after the revolution?

Better placed than me to comment on post-revolution Tunisia: a curious tortoise.

Tunisia post-revolution is a democracy. Under Ben Ali, it was also a democracy. The only difference is that now more than one political party is allowed. Ha.

Democratic elections were held comparatively quickly after the revolution, in October 2011, and the current government is dominated by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. Ennahda recently announced that the first clause of the Tunisian constitution should remain as it is: in other words, they will not be introducing Sharia (Islamic religious) law. The constitution still demands, however, that the president be a Muslim (a feature shared by 98% of the population).

That there was some doubt as to the future of Sharia law in Tunisia is something I have encountered on my trip. In Sousse, I ran into a Salafist rally held on the walls of the old medina. It was startling to see the infamous black and white flags of hardline Islamism flying over the moderate Tunisian skyline. And the locals seemed about as taken aback as I was, with many of them taking photos or film, like tourists.

Salafi flags over the medina in Sousse.

These rallies have been held all over the country, including one of 10,000 in Tunis. But even so, I met a chap who told me that of the 10 million people in the country, perhaps as many as 9.5 million opposed the Salafis. At the rally in Sousse, there were about 200 people and about fifty of them were shouting themselves hoarse in support of the speakers. The women were segregated, although not especially effectively – I saw a slightly bewildered fat white man in a baseball cap emerge from the tightly packed women in full Islamic dress. The rally was bossed by heavyset men in smart cropped beards, many wearing khaki military waistcoats and jackboots. It’s the kind of dress code I recognise from BNP rallies in the UK.

So the question of Sharia law has been answered for the moment, but for how long? The young man I spoke to in Sousse was utterly disbelieving that such a thing could ever happen in Tunisia. But the truth is that Islamist parties now have a legal platform on which to stand in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, they were effectively silenced. It remains to be seen whether, allowed the freedom to campaign, they will be rejected or whether their calls for religious law will be heard sympathetically, as an effective alternative to Western political and economic domination.

“Stay standing, people of Tunisia – everyone is proud of you.”

Two anecdotal changes post-revolution are a reduction in litter collections (litter was already a huge problem in 2008, this makes things worse) and an increase in petty thieving – the ‘catastrophes’ my motocycle chaperone talked about. I myself have noticed two further changes regarding freedom of information: the newspapers are no longer filled with Ben Ali’s fat face and the internet browser I’m currently using has hardcore porn saved as a bookmark.

One post-revolution change that I can certainly attest to is the massive drop in tourist numbers in Tunisia. I’ve met about a dozen other tourists, hotels have been almost totally empty and, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here during Tunisian spring holidays, I’d have felt very alone at times.

There are hopes that this summer will see an increase of tourists compared to last year – but last year was a disaster. Tourism accounts for 7% of the Tunisian economy and in 2011 tourist numbers were down over 30%. That means 3,000 jobs lost. That means more people like Ali and Walid taking to hard drink.

In Sidi Bouzid, there are still streetsellers peddling their carts, there are still beggers outside the mosque, the cafes and streetsides are still packed with young men smoking and old men slapping down cards or dominoes, under- or un-employed. Mohamed Bouazizi’s market still runs, selling post-revolutionary fruit – appetites ignore politics. And of course there’s still the governor, the police and the Garde Nationale, but they’re on our side now, aren’t they?

The infamous government building. The blue banner reads: ’17th December Tunisian revolution of freedom and dignity.’

Turning to more optimistic matters, I think there is an essay to be written about graffiti and freedom. There probably already has been. People graffiti when they are no longer scared and there is definitely more graffiti in Tunisia, post-revolution. Most of it is basic paintwork slogans, like ‘EST’ – a reference to Esperance Sportive de Tunis, one of the big football clubs here. But I have seen more political slogans, most memorably ‘Fuck the police’ (not, I presume, solely a reference to NWA) and ‘Ben Ali a l’enfer’ – ‘Ben Ali go to hell’.

Around the revolutionary monument in Sidi Bouzid, there is more peaceful, commemorative graffiti. It has been left untouched, despite decorating the walls of the local police station and the notorious government building outside which Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight.

Revolution, liberty, blah, blah, blah.

It should be said in conclusion, to echo my comments at the start of this post, that no conclusion, no judgement is final. Tunisia is still in the delicate phases of post-revolution. One point of note, though, is that these phases have been calmer than those in Libya or even in Egypt. Perhaps this is a sign that Tunisia has more to lose than these other countries. Perhaps it is a sign that, despite the oppressions of Ben Ali’s government, in general things were not so bad.

For a country situated between Algeria and Libya on the continent of Africa, Tunisia is well-developed, well-educated and the people here have it better than many. Tunisia has a literacy rate of 88.9%, compared to Egypt’s 66.4%. Tunisian GDP per capita is $4,200, while in Egypt it is only $2,700. Tunisia might not have the raw wealth of oil-rich Libya, but it does have a society worth preserving, seen in the friendly smiles of the people I pass on my bicycle.

The very least that can be said of the revolution is that power is no longer coalesced in one man, as it was in Ben Ali and in Habib Bourguiba before him. A servant to his country until the very end, Ben Ali fled the revolution for Saudi Arabia, charged with corruption, theft, money laundering and drug trafficking.

No doubt Tunisia is better off without him. But only a couple of days after my trip to Sidi Bouzid, I came face to face with the reality of protest in post-revolution Tunisia.