Thursday, 21 May 2009

Perhaps too much of a Guardian article

I'm posting up an article that I submitted to the Guardian newspaper, part of my ongoing efforts to get someone other than myself to write about me and the ride...

I submitted the piece to the travel section, but it has also got a quintessential Guardian element to it... that sentimental melodrama that is found throughout the paper... how much the Muslim girl cried when she removed her headscarf and felt sunlight on her follicles for the first time... the man with the stutter who one day hopes not to have to struggle with "I l-lo-love you s-s-s-son"... It's perhaps written in that tone that sounds like it's drifting to you from the bottom of a long, miserable tunnel, but is somehow tinged with a little bit of loveliness that's supposed to make you feel hopeful.

Anyway, I have now forewarned you of this fact, and so you have only yourselves to blame if you find me mawkish.


We live an existence of finished products; bread is bought from supermarkets without the need to think of how it was baked, communication arrives simultaneously of being sent, without even time for anticipation of delivery to begin, people arrive at their workplace by virtue of a combustion engine that enables them to move through the world from the comfort of an armchair and remoteness of a windscreen. Humans are being removed, every where I look, from the processes that give meaning to actions, and this brings about a state of many meaningless actions.

Travel is no exception, in fact it's a classic example, and that's a sad thing when it has, historically, embodied all that is most intrepid in a society. We can now buy exotic destinations from the high street, next to the shop in which we buy our socks, and not necessarily with any greater requisite of thought. We pay our money, board a plane, pass through the atmosphere, high above that world passing below, we land, and one of those vaccuum-hose tunnels sucks us from our steel hull, into an airport, and then on to the destination we paid our money to acquire. It's ironic that we still call it 'travelling', even after the actual travelling, the movement, has been cleansed of all event or adventure. We might now term it, more accurately, as just 'amassing'.

There is, growing as I write, a movement away from this brand of tourism... it is being proclaimed that the journey is more important than the destination, which is refreshing, as refreshing as it is unfortunate that people could have overlooked this consdieration in the first place. Even with this changing conception, however, scant attention is paid to the idea, one step further back, that travelling is not just the journey and destination, but also the place from which we depart on our travels. The marketing of travel is no different to all the other social experiences and emotions that are cheapened as they are sold back to us.

I'm cycling around the world, aiming to break a world record for doing so. To me it doesn't seem a thing so remarkable... I love cycling, and for a person as cycnical and reserved as I feel I've become, it says alot that I will still say, open and unreserved, that I love cycling. Last year a new world record was set for the accomplishment of a circumnavigation by bicycle. I respect the rider that achieved this feat, and I pass no judgment on a man needing to make his own way in a difficult world, but I came to hate much of what his accomplishment went on to stand for. A BBC documentary serialised the adventure, they commissioned laboratory testing upon the rider, stuffing tubes down his throat to measure his lungs. They found a dietician to pronounce that less than 6000 daily calories would spell disaster. They appointed some dour larynx to sound woebegone and prophesise doom at every opportunity the documentary afforded.

The achievement did not go unnoticed... Orange decided to use it to sell more phones, to tell the world of our oneness under their panoply, united by the magnificent endeavour of someone else. Lloyds TSB were so touched that they made the rider a corporate ambassador for the bank, finally bringing together the eternally interconnected concerns of cycling and adventure on the one hand, and - on the other - the arms industry, petrochemicals, and aggressively targeting poor people with the promotion of high-interest loans.

I had nothing against the rider, but I could not stand to see my passions sold off thus, and so I went about the launch of a retrieval. It wasn't for charity, it was to make something that bit more sacred again... I failed to see the virtue of charity if it were only to provide mitigation for a deterioration in the wider world. As I have said, it doesn't seem so remarkable, to ride a bicycle for a cause I believe in... What is left in this world if we can't bring ourselves to do things we love for reasons close to our hearts?

My mind is littered with beauties from the roadside. From France, riding up the Col du Lautaret for an hour and a half, with my senses registering only the clanking of cow bells and a magnificent, silent stillness all around. From Albania, where an Albanian who lives most the year in Tottenham did stop to give me enough local currency to reach the nearest town, then proceeded to invite me home for dinner with his family. I remember the deserted stretch that separates Spain from Portugal, with no lights on the ground to dim the stars in the sky as they shone, so big and so impossibly bright. I lay there with a rock for a pillow and a head of 19-year-old fears of scorpions and strangers. I remember the brilliant terror that rose in me as the huge, antlered silhouette of a stag appeared above the ditch where I lay, then bolted back to the night as I recoiled in fear.

I wanted to share these experiences, I wanted to encourage others to go out and experience all this and more for themselves. I wanted, most of all, to wrest back these moments, the essence they contained of something better, from the corporations that had purchased my litter of beauty from the roadside, quite in spite of having not a single thing in common with it. That, in short, is why I set out to circumnavigate the world by bicycle, aiming to break a world record for doing so.

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