A man decides that there is more to cycling than the daily commute. Somewhere in his forties, he is questioning the direction of the second half of his life. He needs a little time to think so he resolves to set off on his first long-distance cycling tour. As a naive touring cyclist he’s not sure how it will all work out. Will he stop after just a couple of days and head back home, tail between legs and forget he ever even thought of the idea? He’s not even sure as to what to carry with him and inevitably takes far too much stuff. He’s riding his faithful Ridgeback Panorama but after only a few days away from home he is feeling comfortable with his new, albeit temporary existence as cycling camper. He takes in the odd cheap hotel and occasionally has the chance of staying overnight in someone’s house. He sometimes struggles with the uphills but rejoices in the accompanying downhills at the other side of the brow of the hill. He meets some very nice people indeed, usually complete strangers and the odd, very odd Dutchman who puts him on edge. He is attacked by minute flying monsters but finds solace in far too many beers for his own good. When the end is in sight he is glad that he will soon be back into the routine of his previous life but that life will be just a little bit more satisfying in the knowledge that he took time out for his little adventure on a bike. He then wrote a book about it.
Sound familiar? Well, if you have read Mike Carter’s One Man And His Bike, it should be for I am not describing my journey to the south of Italy but his 2009 anticlockwise journey around the coastline of Britain. I first spotted Mike’s book on Amazon when it started appearing as the book that was ‘frequently bought together‘ with Good Vibrations. For a long time however, I was a little reluctant to read it as I was scared that I would find a well-written, erudite, engaging & humorous account that would only show up the holes in my own effort to describe my journey across Europe. I even ignored the recommendations from people who had read both books; perhaps it was simply a diplomatic way of saying ‘look, nice try, but this is how to do it properly…‘.
What changed my mind was an advert that appeared a couple of months ago in The Guardian for a Travel Writing Masterclass which was being lead by none other than Mike Carter. Perhaps this was an opportunity for me to receive some guidance from the man himself; he might reveal the secrets of writing not just a good cycling travelogue but a great one. There was one question however; was the Masterclass aimed at the likes of me who had actually written something and, in terms of sales at least, had been quite successful in doing so? I emailed The Guardian and, as modestly as I could, asked the question. No response. Perhaps, I thought, the course was already full. After a few days however, I did receive something back but it wasn’t from the Masterclass office, it was from Mike Cater himself. Not only that, he clearly knew something about me and my own cycling endeavours: “I do believe we both did our recent bike trips on Ridgeback Panoramas!“. He went on to explain that the Masterclass probably wasn’t for me as it was aimed at those interested in writing shorter travel articles for newspapers and magazines. “[And] anyway, from what I’ve heard about your book (I haven’t read it yet, but do plan to) it sounds as if you pretty much know what you’re doing.” I wasn’t quite so sure about that but I welcomed his honesty. He could have simply encouraged me to turn up, pay up and perhaps be a little disappointed but he didn’t. Respect. I replied thanking him and offering him a complimentary copy of Good Vibrations. I also said that I’d be happy to take him out for lunch for a chat should he be interested. I expected a polite reply citing the busy working life of a hard-pressed journalist – he works as a freelancer at The Guardian – as a reason for such things being difficult but no, I was wrong. He suggested that I come down to the newspaper offices just behind Kings Cross station and have lunch with him in the canteen one day. And that’s exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago.
It would have been discourteous not to have read One Man & His Bike by the time we met so, not without a little trepidation, I downloaded a copy of the eBook and set to work. Despite the many factual similarities between the two books, the styles were distinct. I immediately sensed that this was a journey that was completed with a book in mind as the level of descriptive detail and the ability of the author to quote directly from the mouths of those he met along the way was in stark contrast with my own attempts to do so (writing Good Vibrations was like piecing together a complex jigsaw from the trail of evidence I had inadvertently created along the way). I was soon engrossed. Mike had set off on his journey as a man disgruntled with his lot in London but he didn’t mess about getting stuck into life on the road; his spirits were quickly raised by escaping the frustrations of the capital and as he made his way further and further north he becomes a man transformed by the simplicity imposed from living out of four pannier bags. My favourite portion of the book is as he travels along the top of Scotland from John O’Groats to Cape Wrath; he could get no further from London without wading into the North Sea and the feeling of escape is tangible. As he turns south he continues to meet the characters that make this such a human tale; I was wanting him to dispatch his pessimistic Dutchman in a direct manner and he didn’t disappoint. I cheered. If you were delighted with my own description of cycling naivety, then you won’t be disappointed by One Man & His Bike. If you weren’t delighted by Good Vibrations, then perhaps Mike Carter’s book with put your faith back into cycling travelogues once again. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
I’ve never met and had a conversation with a ‘proper’ author before and as I stood in the reception area of The Guardian offices in London I did feel a little nervous. There have been many times over the last couple of years when I have thought I was a little out of my depth (‘your a French teacher for goodness sake!‘) and none more so than that Friday lunchtime just a couple of weeks ago. I went through the motions of trying to look casual, leafing through that morning’s edition of the paper but spending far more time taking in the people who were walking by, the gleaming newspaper offices that surrounded me and eavesdropping on the conversations of others as they waited to be picked up from reception themselves. After a few minutes, Mike arrived. We exchanged greetings and he ushered me through to the ‘canteen’ that from the perspective of a secondary school teacher was more like a Michelin starred restaurant. It was fascinating listening to him talk about his work and especially the book. I asked him about his ability to quote directly in a way that I found almost impossible. There is no secret (why did I think that there might be?); he just tried to jot down notes shortly after the conversation had taken place, especially if he thought it had been one of the gems that would be a good candidate for the book itself. Towards the end of lunch I was delighted to hear about his own love of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. It was one of the very first travelogues I read myself as a young teenager. Clearly it’s a good place to start if you are thinking about writing a book all about escaping or foot or, in Mike Carter’s and my case, even by bike. I may even read it again sometime soon…
You can see more pictures from Mike’s journey around the coastline of the UK on The Guardian website.