Epilogue to the book

 

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‘Go,’ said Andy.

I stepped away from the ground and began to pedal tentatively across the ice. The white crust formed a carapace above a river of meltwater that I could hear bubbling and rushing invisibly beneath. My tyres lurched through the slush with a sound like paper being screwed up. Though it was already May, and I was pedalling in T-shirt and shorts, the last remnants of winter still clung to the alpine wilderness of Northern Mongolia; the mountainous fringes of the great Siberian taiga forests. The ice seemed solid enough beneath the bike, but I had no idea how strong it really was.

Mongolia . . . the name carried the essence of untethered freedom; of a land where self-sufficiency was an everyday reality, where paved roads were a whisper of the pampering into which the rest of the world had fallen, where the seasons wielded the power of life and death. And for once, my preconceptions had been a remarkable match to reality. It had been several days since the trail had petered out, and so Andy and I had been following the tangle of streams that ate their way along the wide valley floor, having heard that a town of some description lay at its distant end. The way was paved by weather-rounded stones – some the size of a fist, others big as televisions – so most of our progress along the river basin had been made on foot. Flanking the wide expanse of stony ground were steep walls of rock, stroked with green by the spring’s new growth of larch and pine. The landscape was utterly without trace of human interference – it turned us into two tiny specks, our travails rendered vain and pointless by the stillness and the silence. Onward we had trudged, encased within this valley, carrying a few days’ worth of instant noodles, a water filter, and the vague promise of a settlement thirty-odd miles ahead of where we’d now stopped to film a scene for the documentary. We had been riding for more than a month, and the going was getting increasingly tough. But that was why we were here. Smiles and satisfaction would come later.

 

I’d rolled back up my parents’ drive in Northamptonshire to find that little had changed in my absence – a few more grey hairs and wrinkles in the mirror, a new set of politicians to complain about, and a brand new version of Microsoft Windows to curse at. The world had plodded along as I’d lived out the middle years of my twenties as a bicycle-bound vagabond, found love on the road, and got a glimpse of how I might forge a life more authentically my own. I could barely recognise the relics of my former existence.

‘So, how was it?’ people would ask when they saw me, as if I’d just returned from a particularly long bike ride round the Welland Valley. ‘What are you going to do now? Are you going to write a book about your trip?’

And I never really knew what to say. These questions were all wrong. I hadn’t ‘come back’ from anything. The ‘trip’ was a myth – I’d arrived in Middleton as a consequence of moving forward; it was just the end of another day on the road. How was I supposed to write a book? A book would need an ending. And this didn’t feel like the end of anything. Yes, I might be in Middleton, but I had no particular reason to stay. In fact, it didn’t really seem to matter where I was any more. How I actually spent my time seemed more important.

I called up James, who had long since wound up his production company and was carving out a career as a television producer-director, making factual programmes for the BBC.

‘I’m back in England,’ I told him over the phone.

‘Right . . . er, well . . . welcome back!’ he replied. He sounded slightly afraid, as if reality had just hit home. For on a shelf in his living room was a row of video-tapes – almost three hundred of them – that I’d posted back to him, one by one, covered in sand and dust and incomprehensible annotations. It had been nearly four years since he’d convinced me to film my endeavours, and we both knew that something had begun all that time ago that was still unfinished. Even if I couldn’t see an ending just yet, we would have to begin looking for one. James made a commitment that few directors would be willing to make: to watch all of this footage, just to see if by some miracle it contained the elements of a story worth telling. Simply viewing the raw material – let alone figuring out what to do with it – would take months. James was well within his rights to simply walk away. Lucky, then, that he was as stubborn as I was.

But I also knew that even if we did manage to make a film, it would be impossibly distilled. It could never say all that I wanted to say. Others expressed themselves through public speaking; I hated being the centre of attention, and I was dreadfully inarticulate even before my friends, let alone in front of crowds of total strangers. So I decided to play to my strengths. My website articles had earned me a decent following; the writing had always been guided by the need to understand the weird flow of cause and effect that lay beneath my travels, divining the lessons by writing them out, and moulding the experience into a vicarious one. The idea of writing a book started to make sense. But I still felt woefully ill-prepared: there seemed no point putting pen to paper until I understood my own story. And so I did what any normal person would do: I decided to cycle to the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter. This, I imagined, would give me time and space to prepare for the task that lay ahead.

So I rode a thousand miles through Norway and Sweden, through the forests of Lapland, and eventually crossed the Arctic Circle in mid-February, cycling on roads of solid ice, taking occasional shortcuts across frozen lakes, wearing my old ski-instructor jacket from my gap year, passing the nights in my little green and yellow tent at thirty degrees below zero. I survived. I learnt new things through tackling new challenges. And I sat on the bus back to England with the conviction that I really did have a story worth sharing – the tale of some bloke from England, unhappy with his lot, deciding to say bollocks to it and walk the earth, returning home years later – with a wife!

I rejoined Tenny in Armenia (for Yerevan would always be my second home), took up residency in an armchair in the corner of a cafe, stroked my beard in an intellectual fashion, and presently typed a single sentence into my laptop: Norwegians called this ‘the doorstep mile’ – the first step in a long journey, and the most difficult of all to make. I spent the next months pouring it all out – my strongest memories, the little things that had stuck in my mind for no apparent reason, and everything in between; everything that was jogged by re-reading my diaries and reviewing the photographs I’d taken. I attempted to fashion them into some kind of narrative, and confidently sent the resulting manuscript off to some of my closest friends, expecting that they would shower my work with praise, confirming that a little editing and tweaking would be needed before putting it out for general consumption.

This is not what happened.

Barely a single word of that confused first draft exists in the finished book. But – just as with my bicycle journey – I had to begin somewhere.

 

I deleted everything and rewrote the manuscript four times over the next year and a half, in the libraries, coffee shops, studies, living rooms and yurts of several countries, before my inner perfectionist quietened its rage. I murdered sixty thousand words in the last major rework – a short novel’s worth of text. My experience of authoring felt by turns joyful and torturous, and was every bit as much of an adventure into the unknown as the journeys about which I was writing – even if it looked like I was simply sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea and a laptop. And the story that emerged ended up not being about cycling or about the wonders of long-term travel at all. As my editor later pointed out, there are plenty of middle-class white blokes on journeys of self-discovery, thank you very much. And there had been countless bicycle adventures far more heroic and impressive-sounding than my own had been, their stories told by better writers in more dramatic and compelling prose than I was able to write. The world did not need another book cast in the same mould.

Instead, what emerged was the all-too-often neglected human story – the personal and emotional subtext to every adventure and expedition (and for that matter every human endeavour). This was much harder to talk about, as it involved pulling back the curtain on the tales of derring-do, busting the hero myth and acknowledging all the frailty and self-doubt and imperfection of character. The problem was that nobody would want to read three and a half years’ worth of whingey and self-absorbed inner monologue. I had to find another way.

Just as for the film, there was an absurd amount of raw material available; no two days were the same, each one was still etched into my memory. But which would bring my story to life? I picked through the days, identifying the crucial turning points and reconstructing them in detail. I revisited all the chance meetings with friendly strangers who became friends, trying to figure out what they’d taught me and how those lessons had affected later decisions. I analysed the characters of the people I spent time with, and took the grisly step of looking inward at my own character, confronting my own flaws, figuring out the delicate interplay of mine and others’ motives, portraying the personality clashes and the arguments. And though much was left out altogether or deleted during the many rewrites, the essence of what happened was gradually revealed – not a dry, scientific record of events, nor an adolescent account of my various existential crises, but instead a three-dimensional model of my journey. It contained all of the anecdotes and events of the confused first draft; only now these tales had been put to task.

 

Talking to people whose books occupied the same dusty bookshop shelves as mine might one day inhabit, a theme emerged. A big commercial publisher wouldn’t be interested, because I was not a celebrity, and big publishers wanted books by celebrities (or their ghost-writers) because they would be able to sell thousands of copies without needing to worry about whether or not the contents were readable. A small niche publisher might be more interested, and perhaps they’d get a copy into that dusty back corner of every bookshop in the country. But then they’d sit on the publishing rights and refuse to pay for more editions, citing the financial risk of doing so – meaning I’d be able to include ‘published author’ in my job title, but that my first book would be a sad, strangled, unrepeatable thing. Then someone mentioned ‘self-publishing’– a new idea that was democratising the industry by spawning millions of badly written books with awful covers and worse interiors that would each sell about seven copies.

At about that time, a company called Kickstarter announced that they were to launch in the UK. Kickstarter helped people raise funds for creative projects by collecting small investments from the public in return for rewards – in this case, a finished copy of the book. Perhaps I could appeal to my website’s readership and raise the funds to ‘self-publish’, but do so with the same attention to quality that a decent publisher would ensure? Having a finished manuscript was one thing; I wanted the physical book to be a pleasurable reading experience too. I researched book production, planned a quick budget, recorded a personal video message and penned an appeal to go with it. On the morning of Kickstarter’s opening day I launched the project from the comfort of my bed, sent out an email to my mailing list, and lay back down for a doze. By the time I got up again, £300 had been pledged. By lunchtime, the total had exceeded £1,000. After a week, pledges had passed £5,000 and were still climbing. The campaign ended after twenty-one days with £9,399 in pledges from 339 individuals, who’d each contributed between £1 and £500 to the project. I was stunned and humbled. I’d only asked for £6,000.

Things began to move forward rather rapidly. I’d promised to deliver the book within three months; an impossibly short time in publishing. I talked to everyone I knew and found a literary consultant, a veteran editor of non-fiction narratives and memoirs who would critique my manuscript from an industry perspective. Her report was incisive, identifying everything that worked about the story, clarifying the book’s vision, and giving my self-doubting side some hope that someone other than my mum might read it – as well as highlighting what didn’t work, pointing out what I’d skipped over or overwritten. I sat down for another couple of months of reworking, penning several new chapters, revisiting the most painful and personal moments that I’d originally skipped over, and culling anecdotes that were interesting but no longer relevant. I was lucky enough to have a friend with an empty yurt in the woods of the English Lake District, complete with a log burner, a wind-up gramophone and a stack of 78s, and the complete absence of electricity or Internet. And so each day I sat before the warm glow of the fire, kettle permanently steaming above it, writing and rewriting and editing until the sun went down and the laptop’s battery ran out. I am aware that this sounds impossibly idyllic. But if I was going to tackle the biggest challenge of my life thus far, I might as well be doing it somewhere nice.

Other people became involved: a talented graphic designer for the cover who’d helped James and me no end with the film; an interior designer who laid out and typeset the manuscript for printing; and Tenny herself, whose artistic talents produced twenty-three illustrations for the book’s chapter breaks. It seemed fitting for her to play an important, creative part in its telling – without her, there’d be no story at all. Almost before I knew it, the printer’s deadline was looming. And the plans I’d been making for future personal journeys were brewing.

 

With an enormous sense of relief I found that the bicycle still had relevance; that this slow and simple way of exploring the world had not outlived its appeal. I was glad that I’d determined to return to Tenny, that this had won out over a stubborn insistence on finishing the thing I’d mistakenly begun, which would probably have meant that I’d never have been able to look at a fully loaded touring bike ever again. Besides, the original aim for Ride Earth, I recalled, had been to take mountain-biking to its logical conclusion. We had even used that very phrase as the tag-line for that ill-fated expedition ‘brand’. And now we were doing something that fitted the tag-line rather well: pedalling across roadless Mongolia, until our wheels could no longer roll and we were forced to proceed on foot, biking having been taken as far as it would go. This trip, I decided, finally fulfilled that original ambition, after so many detours. And I was glad to find that my friendship with Andy had survived, and that we were still able to pull off trips like this if we could just team up and put our minds to it.

‘Focus in on where the sound’s coming from,’ I said to Andy, struggling to keep my balance as I churned through the wet slush. ‘You’ve got to get really up close.’

‘Well then I won’t be able to get any of you in the shot.’

‘But I don’t want you to get me in the shot – I want you to get up close,’ I said, coming to a halt and looking across the ice at Andy. I’d taken on the role of director in the new video project we were working on; the tale of two best mates seeing how lost they could get on mountain-bikes in the world’s most sparsely populated nation. The director, I’d heard, was supposed to give directions.

‘Go on, then,’ said Andy, with a hint of impatience.

‘Just film wherever the action is,’ I repeated.

‘Yeah, that’s what I’m doing, so get on with it.’

‘Sorry?’

‘That’s what I’m doing . . .’ said Andy, more haltingly.

‘So . . . ?’

‘So get on with it!’

I snapped. ‘Oh, forget it then, if you can’t be bothered to listen to my advice!’

‘It’s not advice, when you say it like that!’

‘Say it like what?! “Get on with it!” — how d’you think that sounds?’

‘It wouldn’t bother me,’ shrugged Andy.

‘I think it would, actually!’

‘No, it wouldn’t!’

‘Oh, for God’s sake . . !’

– Tom Allen, January 2013

 

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