yesterday's washingmachinepost featured a review of one man and his bike by mike carter, one of the finest books i have had the pleasure of reading in many a long day, cycle oriented or otherwise. it is, however, one thing to set off on a five month, unscripted bike ride, intent on experiencing the joys of life on the open road, and quite another to encapsulate it all in the pages of a book.
the following interview with mike will hopefully expose some of the scenery and props behind the entertainment.
the book's pre-amble intimates that you suddenly decided not to go to the office, but to cycle round the uk instead. was it really that simple?
Not so simple, really. The idea came on my way to work, for sure. But it was another few weeks before I set off - I had to get a little bit organised: renting out my flat so I could afford to survive and stuff like that. But, in essence, when I did set off, I rode my normal commuting route and instead of turning left to work, went straight across the traffic lights.
was it always your intention to produce a book from the experience?
Not necessarily. I'd already written one book, published in 2008, about a motorbike trip I took. During that trip I'd written a weekly column about it for the Observer, which seemed to go down quite well. When I mentioned I was going to cycle round Britain, the Observer was keen for me to write weekly about that too. So that might have been the total of my writing on the trip. But my publisher liked the idea too and said we should talk about the possibility of a book when I got back. I wasn't sure it would make a book; how could I, when I hadn't even done the trip? But on my return, we talked and decided to go ahead. It's always important for me to have the option of not writing a book when I'm travelling. Otherwise, the way you travel is distorted by always looking at events through a writer's eye, and that detracts from the actual experience, I think. Travelling should be its own reward, to deploy a hoary old cliche.
do you have astonishing powers of recall, or was each day laboriously documented in some form or other?
Well, I had the columns, so they acted as a good aid to memory. But I also take a lot of notes when I'm travelling. Not massively detailed, but just little snippets to jog the memory. I'd usually lie in my tent for an hour in the evening, or down the pub, and scribble furiously. If I'd just had a great encounter or conversation with somebody, I'd go round the corner and try and get as much down as I could remember. I don't tend to write when talking to people as that just trips it all up and makes the other person self-conscious. And digital photography has been a real boon when it comes to describing places, landscapes etc. I take 1,000s of pics and look back at them when I'm trying to write about somewhere.
you appear to have had more than your fair share of troubles with the rear wheel. was this the stock wheel that came with the ridgeback?
Oh, boy, did I! The wheels were the stock wheels that came with the Ridgeback. I was a neophyte in cycle touring before I set off. If I had my time again, or next time I hit the road with a big load, I will get better wheels made. It doesn't help that I took so much stuff initially and that I like a pint; I'm nearly 15 stone! I loved the Ridgeback, but the wheels were, in my opinion, the weak link.
the book has an admirably proportional mix of humour, angst and emotion. was that of primary concern when writing, or did it just turn out that way?
I think that's just the way I write. The books I love to read are those where the author invests in the journey emotionally as well as physically. For what is the point of travel if not to open ourselves up to new experiences and thus, in the process, to be open to the possibility of change? I like Proust's quote about the purpose of travel being not necessarily to see new landscapes, but familiar landscapes through fresh eyes. I did leave London feeling rather jaded about cynical about our island and what had happened to it. And what I experienced really changed the way I see Britain, hugely for the better. And along the way, with all the time that pedalling gives you to think, I worked a few things out about myself. But ultimately, everything is rather absurd, the things we fret about, and our worries become insignificant in the grand scheme of things. If I could muster up the perfect ingredients for a book, it would contain a bit of all the above.
would you say you are just as humorous in real-life?
I would say, without a second's hesitation, absolutely. Everybody I know would say, without a second's hesitation, absolutely not.
judging by those you met doing likewise, though in clockwise direction, do you think that circumnavigating the uk has become a somewhat common practice? even if not everyone follows it with a book.
I only met two - Jack and Nick - and they had both seen my column in the Observer and contacted me via the paper to see if we could meet up. So I can't really answer this. I'm guessing that it's not too common, seeing as it's a major commitment in terms of time. But I see that there is now an annual organised, supported ride following the same route (I forget the name). Maybe, with the state of the nation's finances, and the growing camping and 'staycation' market, more and more people will do it. I hope so. There's something about pedalling every inch of your own country's perimeter that gives you a huge sense of the nation and somehow makes you feel a real part of it. That sounds a bit grandiose, but it's how I feel about Britain now.
though a cringingly parochial question, you cycled the outer hebrides, through skye and across to mull, yet on reaching tarbert, you took a left in the direction of arran. what was wrong with islay? did none of its eight distilleries attract?
I know! You'll no doubt have realised having read the book that I find distilleries particularly attractive. I don't have a good answer for why I didn't come to Islay, or Jura, or Bute or Orkney for that matter. I regret it, though. As I mention in the book, I was making it up as I went along; no plans, open to providence. It may well be that I'd just missed a ferry, or something equally simple. It does give me an excuse to visit next time though!
might i assume that the observer newspaper was happy to keep a desk open for you upon return?
I've always been freelance, so no guaranteed work, then or now. I'm still working at the Observer (although the travel section's closed down now) and at the Guardian, where I'm a subeditor on the Comment pages. There seems to be enough work at the moment to keep me going - interspersed with travel writing, and teaching writing too - but the way everything's going, that could all change. These are tricky times! If the worst came to the worst, I think I'd rent out my flat again and take off on the bike. Maybe a round-the-world trip next time...
have you retained any of the fitness gained over the five month trip?
Yes, I think so. A few weeks ago, I did La Marmotte in the Alps, albeit in a pedestrian time of just under ten hours. But I'm not built for four Alpine passes in a row. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. I keep threatening to lose a load of weight, but then what excuse would I have for being so rubbish?
given that you were constantly lightening the load in your panniers, would you like to try the journey on the colnago c50?
I'm looking at her now. She's quivering at the very thought of those potholes on the track to Cape Wrath.
how easy was it to re-adjust to so-called civilisation?
Really, really, really difficult. I missed the sea and the vast open spaces and the birdsong so, so much. Life lived so simply has a pace that somehow feels like the natural human state. I'm sure that, seeing where you live, you don't need me to tell you that. And I missed the friendliness and kindness of the people I'd meet on the road every day. I cannot tell you how hard it was to fight through the traffic on my morning commute, with all the aggression and everyone in a hurry. But the thing I missed most of all was, probably, my tent. It had become my home, my sanctuary. It took a long time to adjust to sleeping with walls and not waking up with the sunrise and dawn chorus. I think at one stage I contemplated going and camping in a London park, just to remind myself of how lovely it all is. But then I thought I might get myself stabbed! And there's the rub: people in London, as everywhere, are probably fundamentally good, but it's not the image of Londoners that the daily media's reports of violence would have you believe. Assuming goodwill changes everything. But it's hard in a big city.
would you do it all again?
In a heartbeat. They were among the happiest five months of my life. We live on an extraordinary island.
posted monday 1 august 2011