Lancashire was where it all started coming together.
I had been on the road for a fortnight, two thirds of the all-too-meagre time allowance I had in which to make this journey. It had been a fortnight since I’d last spent or handled money in any form, and the notion of carrying around bits of paper and metal and plastic to give to people in exchange for goods and services was a fast-dwindling memory.
What the hell is money, anyway? I wondered as I rode through the tangle of canals and motorways and industrial estates that populate the corridor between Manchester and Liverpool.
I’m no economist, and perhaps that helps as much with perspective as withdrawing from the financial economy for a while. In any case, money seemed to have revealed itself to be nothing but a token of debt. Just that. No more.
Some examples might illustrate this best:
When I do some work for someone, or give them something I’ve made (which equates to the same thing, since it’s time you expend when you work or when you make something), they are now indebted to me as a result. They now owe me an equivalent amount of services or goods in return for what I’ve given to them.
Rather than my debtor repaying me in man-hours or objects, however – things I may not have any immediate need for – they instead give me a physical object, a physical reminder which we both agree represents that debt. I carry in my pocket a promise that my time will be repaid in the future by the person who gave that physical reminder to me. The physical reminder is also known as money.
And because – by accepting money in repayment for work – we all implicitly agree on what that money is worth, relative to all the possible types of goods and services it represents, I can then pass a reminder of what I’m owed to a third person in exchange for something they have that I want, rather than exchanging my own goods or services for it directly, which under plenty of easily-imaginable circumstances would be a pain in the backside.
(Gathering asparagus in a muddy field in exchange for a bowl of soup comes to mind; far easier to give the soup-bearer a couple of quid, right?)
This means, of course, that my original debtor now owes that third person, rather than me, even though the two may never meet! And that’s the crux: the currency itself – originally gold, silver, bronze; now just numbers on coins and notes and bank accounts – becomes a token of some unknown amount of time that someone else spent somewhere else doing something.
And so it is that we have built a planet-sized social structure upon the notion of passing around the future promises of total strangers – hence the phrase, ‘time is money’.
And that’s why large sums of money are powerful: all that debt, all those owed man-hours, can be called upon to wreak change on a massive scale. Powerful, and potentially very dangerous.
That’s assuming, of course, that we all continue to agree on what our currency actually represents; what it’s worth, or indeed whether it’s actually worth anything. I remember cycling through two particular countries – Romania and Turkey – shortly after people had disagreed enormously on what their bits of metal and paper with numbers on them could be exchanged for. The result was hyper-inflation… all those tokens; suddenly nobody wanted them, which meant nobody else wanted them because they couldn’t be exchanged for anything useful with anyone else. At which point – to paraphrase a line from a truism I once read – a nation discovered that money could not be eaten.
Apologies if you’re reading this first thing in the morning and it’s giving you a hangover. But I do feel it’s something worth talking about, if for no other reason than because by eradicating money from my life – just temporarily, for the duration of a single journey – I hoped that I would rehabilitate my relationship with it. Not just in the well-worn way of supporting local businesses and what-have-you, but by going beyond that and reaching a better understanding of what money actually is and how it works at a fundamental level. I feel like I’ve made a start on that. Just a start.
Interestingly enough, there are various attempts in progress to address this collective amnesia – or delusion, if you like – when it comes to the nature of money and the large-scale effects of using it as a means of exchanging our time with each other. Who knew, for example, that Bristol (my current place of residence) had it’s own currency, the Bristol Pound?
You may open an account with the Bristol Credit Union, exchange your sterling and begin exchanging tokens of your time with a list of people and organisations just on the right side of meaningful (i.e. the size of central Bristol).
You will know that when you pass a banknote denominated in Bristol Pounds to the barista at Roll For The Soul, there are only so many other places that banknote can be exchanged for anything else, and they’re all within a stone’s throw.
Bristol Pounds cannot be rerouted elsewhere; they cannot be accumulated in the coffers of investment banks and later wielded recklessly in the name of global capitalism.
And so it’s easy to see why they’re forging stronger human relationships between the people and businesses who use them.
None of this addresses an even deeper issue, which has to do with the very idea of the transaction; of always being able to account for what changes hands, which seems to me to be a very modern, industrial, Western thing. Our default mode of behaviour is to give with the expectation of receiving in return. It’s so blindingly obvious that we don’t even think about it, and when you’re indoctrinated into it from birth, it’s incredibly hard to shift it – even harder to see and come to terms with the alternative, which is to give freely without expectation of repayment – whether that’s time, work, help, food, love, or anything else – and on the flip-side to receive the same things freely when they’re offered, without feeling guilty about whether or not you’ve earned it.
But that, my friends, is probably a conversation for another time.
* * *
Back to Lancashire, then, I was riding strong, having raided Burnley FC catering department for on-the-road supplies, coming up trumps with a box of cereal bars with added something-or-other, a kilo of dried mango and – best of all – a selection of pre-packed cakes, free retail samples sent by manufacturers hoping to score a season’s contract with the Premiership’s newest football club.
(For the record: the Eccles cake, the chocolate fudge cake and the cupcakes were all excellent; the treacle tart on the other hand was a bit of a let-down.)
Rather than living in a perpetual state of fear that I might go hungry, it seemed logical to begin stockpiling high-energy food that would not perish, using it as a fallback when fresh food and spontaneous meals could not be found. It would also allow me to ride for a full day – or potentially several, if I played my cards right and found the right opportunities. This model of doing things seemed much more sustainable, and I also felt hopeful about my chances in the Lake District, where I’d been promised an introduction to the manager of a campsite in the Langdales.
From my time living in Cumbria, I knew that the geography of the place engendered close-knit networks of people – isolated valleys, sparsely populated, no phone signal; you couldn’t help but get to know your neighbours. It would be a short detour from my route, but with a foot in the door I hoped to find something to do for a couple of days which would earn me enough food to ride uninterrupted to Scotland.
On a long descent from the Forest of Bowland towards Lancaster, however, my optimism was dashed when – for the second time – my front tyre became unseated from the rim, the wheel suddenly lolloping unsteadily. I slammed on the brakes, peered down; just in time to watch the inner tube bulging grotesquely, like a balloon being inflated in slow motion, and a split second later… BANG.
All went silent. A flock of blackbirds rose noiselessly from a nearby tree. I could hear only muffled crackling, like a glug of milk added to a bowl of Rice Crispies in a sound-proofed booth. The strangest sensation I’ve experienced for some time, this, I realised, was what it was like to be deaf, all ambient noise removed, no obvious correlation between what I saw and what I heard.
As my hearing gradually returned I realised that the crackling had come from my bin-bag waterproof ‘jacket’ as I’d looked about in confusion, trying to relocate my sense of sound in the surrounding undergrowth.
The inner tube had exploded with such force that it had physically buckled the wheel.
Irritated – for this was the second time this had happened – I cursed the steel rim. It was something I’d scrounged when renovating the bike for this trip, as the original front wheel had been missing when I’d rescued it from the local recycling centre, doubtless having been stolen while the bike was locked up on the street somewhere.
My only spare inner tube was the one that still had a big hole in it when a 2-inch screw had gone through the tyre on the outskirts of Gloucester. Wearily I dragged out the pump and the puncture repair kit from Poundland, patched the spare tube, installed it and continued on my way. But after just a few miles I realised that it was still slowly deflating.
Needless to say, I know how to fix a puncture. Once again I unbolted the wheel, pulled out the tube, tore off the patch and installed a new one, pumped it up and sat down for a snack on a bench outside a cafe. Ten minutes later, the tyre was once again flat, and it had begun to rain.
Cursing would not change anything, so I ignored the 50 miles I still had to ride and the fact that it was already almost lunchtime, wasting yet another patch as the same thing happened again. Over the course of the next two hours, I used up every single patch in my so-called repair kit as cyclists came and went, locking up expensive ultralight racing bikes and heading into the warm, dry cafe to spend money on all-day breakfasts and bacon sandwiches and hot beverages.
After the lunchtime rush was over, the cafe’s proprietress came out to see what I was doing, having noticed I’d been loitering outside for almost three hours with a bag of tools and a bicycle wheel and increasingly blackened hands. We chatted about my Land’s End to John O’Groats ride; she mentioned a crazy Austrian who’d come in recently:
“Just cycling around with no plan at all – he was having the time of his life.”
We chatted how she’d been meaning to get some inner tubes to sell at the cafe, given that they were the most common spare part a rider would need, but that she hadn’t got round to it. And we chatted about what a lovely ride this particular coastal route was, past Lancaster and up towards Kendal and the Lakes.
“Can I get you a tea or a coffee?” she asked. “It’s on the house.”
“Ooh, thanks, that’s really kind of you. I’d love a coffee!”
At no point had I ever mentioned that I was riding without money.
Eventually I wound Gaffa Tape around the injured tube, pumped it up and set off. It felt like I was hitting a small pothole every couple of metres, but I could pedal, and nothing else really mattered.
At 7pm I calculated that it was another three hours’ ride to where I needed to be. I’d ridden 50 miles already, had eaten nothing but cake for a day, my bike was falling apart, and it had begun to rain once again. To round things off, a sharp metallic twang on the way up the hill towards Windermere heralded the first snapped spoke in all my years of touring.
Then a text message arrived. It was from my friend in Great Langdale. If I could make it to the pub by last orders, there’d be a pint of ale waiting for me.
Then I began pedalling a little harder…
And next time, I’ll let you know how I came into ownership of the enormous box of food in the photo above.