This week sees the publication of two new books that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for several months. Both are written by accomplished and experienced writers who I highly respect; both sit within the category of adventure; yet these two books could barely be more different in theme and content.
Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer
Julian Sayarer is probably better remembered for the utterly epic post-trip rant he published on his blog than for the feat of athleticism he’d achieved during the previous 169 days of riding.
His words, preserved online since their publication in 2009, were those of a man who — exposed and vulnerable and at 12 miles per hour — had just spent half a year experiencing a vast cross-section of global society, arrived back in London and perceived in a moment of clarity the sheer insanity of mainstream Western society.
Looking for a way to make sense of it, he’d lashed out publicly at the previous record holder, who’d taken the big-corporate sponsorship route to funding his own endeavour and thus represented all that Sayarer saw wrong with the developed world today.
The problem, of course, was that the insanity he’d perceived was one that only he had eyes to see, having earned a perspective almost impossible to gain in any other way than by doing what he’d done. This, together with the demonisation of the sponsored record-breaking rider in question, earned him infamy which doubtless lingers today, as well as the informal moniker of ‘Angry Young Man’.
Life Cycles, published this week by Blake Publishing, begins by acknowledging that while it may have been a slightly rash decision to hit the ‘Publish’ button on the aforementioned article before sleeping on it, there were a great many reasons why things looked that way at the end of the road.
We begin by learning of Julian’s background and upbringing, his deep love for cycling as an escape from the demands of social integration, and his self-identification as a questioner and misfit in a society that seemed blindly off course. We learn of the part the aforementioned record-breaker played in igniting Julian’s reactionary streak:
…it was the final straw… to see the bicycle reduced to no more than a corporate marketing strategy.
And how this spark, combined with the author’s being at a disillusioned loose end in his mid-twenties, set off what would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for his journey:
I was in need of a crusade and, however ridiculous it might sound, a small, embarassing part of me thought that, in beating him, perhaps I could change the world for the better. I suppose, at the very least, it was a worthwhile quest in which to fail.
It seems, perhaps, that the beginnings of the infamous rant were in place before the wheels began to turn. So it will come as a relief to many that Julian’s departure from home also marks a departure from anti-capitalist sentiment — at least, for most of the time — as he reveals himself as a supremely talented wordsmith, weaving an exceptionally succint and poetic tale of the events you’d expect from a long bicycle journey which in other hands would fall flat. Don’t expect a formulaic tale of hardship after hardship overcome; do expect sparkling vignettes of life observed as it passes him by, interspersed with the reflections of a thoughtful idealist who thankfully manages to poke fun at his own indignancy, as in this scene in a brand new Hungarian hypermarket:
Giving up on bread, I make my way to a delicatessen selling pizza and hotdogs. I point at pizza. ‘Ketchup-chilli-muzterd-méjonez?’ she yells. Above her head are four large teats, squeezed by her gloved hand. Down splatter sauces. Shuffling on, I move to another window with chicken legs at a price that guarantees those birds have not led happy lives. I gobble down pizza, lukewarm chicken flesh. She gave me too much méjonez, but all calories are valuable, so I dip chicken bones into surplus méjonez, scoop up a good globule and lick the bone clean, a lollipop of hydrogenated fat. And it’s that, it’s méjonez licked from cheap chicken bones… that’s progress… that’s the future… right there at a French multinational in central Hungary.
This incisive and critical eye, of course, is the one that made his original blog such a refreshing and worthwhile read in a blogosphere swamped with dry, diary-entry-style travelogs about people toddling around the world collecting consumable, commodified experiences. Some will inevitably rile against his tone, his focus and his views; others will be right there with him, wishing they’d both the gall and eloquence to express themselves likewise.
Throughout the story runs an undercurrent of disconnection, of frustration at the unbridgeable gulf between how the long-haul cyclist perceives the world at large and how the world at large perceives the long-haul cyclist. Are the author’s views a beacon of clarity and realism in a world gone utterly mad, or a collection of well-articulated but ultimately abstract rantings in a world that’s getting on with it, despite its various madnesses? Where does Life Cycles figure in its author’s quest to “change the world for the better”? How many traveller-adventurer-writers would put their hands up and say ‘actually, Julian, you’re damn well right’ if they had the bollocks to publicly do so?
I happen to be in a position to see many things through Julian’s eyes, because I’ve been to many of the same places (literally and figuratively). Others may not, and I’d rather not speculate how his tale will read to them. Regardless, Julian’s uncompromising perspective is bound to stir things up (again), and his talent for writing will ensure that he will do so by means of a unique and very worthwhile read.
Life Cycles was released on June 2nd, 2014. Order online via hive.co.uk with free delivery or collection from your local independent bookshop.
Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys
This week I finally made it into every decent bookshop in the UK and became an Amazon UK Bestseller… as a small, unidentifiable bearded bloke on the back cover of Al Humphreys’ superb-looking new book, Microadventures.
For those familiar with his long-running blog, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this new offering, published today by Harper Collins, is every bit as on the money as his previous books. If you took everything Al’s done with the ‘microadventure’ concept over the last couple of years — including the immaculate photos and short films his own excursions have engendered — and boiled them down over your beer-can stove into a rich, well-seasoned reduction of adventurey goodness, this book is what you’d find at the bottom of your hard-anodized titanium saucepan.
If you’re not yet initiated, the #microadventure concept simply reduces ‘outdoor pursuits’ from specialist hobbies requiring time, skill, preparation and money (i.e. something you never get round to actually doing) to the simple act of going outdoors and pursuing something — whether it’s a daft idea to cycle from your mum’s birthplace to your dad’s, to walk from the highest point in your county to the lowest, or any number of other arbitrary concepts that aren’t actually the point at all. You use the time you already have available if you bother to use it — the 5-to-9 in between your 9-to-5; the three full nights’ wild camping you can squeeze into a normal weekend.
The point of Al’s new book, I feel, is to prompt you to stop making excuses and get out there doing this kind of stuff already. After leafing through the first part of this full-colour paperback, packed full of Al’s own excursions in the UK (including a couple of cameos from yours truly), you’re bound to be inspired to do something, else risk missing out on all the good old fashioned fun that people like Al are obviously already having. In the second part, you’ll find you’ll be given the tools and starting points to go on a few microadventures of your own.
For me, it’s the photos as much as the words that make this book a success: it is not a linear narrative, but a book to leaf through, see something that catches your eye (and there’s a lot to catch your eye), and dive into the text to see what it’s all about. Al’s photography skills are superb and they shine in both quality and quantity in this book.
It’s worth mentioning, also, that getting a book like this put out by one of the world’s biggest publishers is a huge coup for a previously self-published indie author who hasn’t had a helping hand, pushy agent or stroke of luck to get to where he’s got to: just self-belief and hard graft. And to think it all began with a little idea to cycle round the world…