Spring 2020 will forever go down in the annals of history as the time of the Coronavirus. We don’t yet know how the story will end – this is history in the making – but we do know that the pandemic has had a significant impact upon the lives of most people. Schools closed, festivals cancelled, sporting events postponed, film premieres rescheduled… Yet with the majority of the population at home, what better time to pick up a book and start reading. And what better time to head off on a vicarious cycle across Europe. But fear not! This is not some shameless plug for my own books. (Although they are rather good…) It is about a new book that is being published on April 9th called A Time For Birds by Helen Moat.
If that name is familiar then please go to the top of the class. Earlier this year I headed off down to the Derbyshire Peak District to meet Helen and interview her for episode 013 of The Cycling Europe Podcast. You can listen to the complete podcast by following this link. Alternatively, here is the section of the podcast where I sat down in Helen’s living room for the chat:
“Finding herself at a crossroads and in need of a change from her job and domestic responsibilities, Helen Moat set herself the challenge of a lifetime: she got on her bike and embarked on an epic cycle ride across Europe, all the way to Istanbul, accompanied by her eighteen-year-old son. They followed the great rivers to the edge of Asia, meeting along the way a beguiling cast of characters and a series of astonishing sights, providing ample time for reflection.
Crossing a continent shaped by war and peace, peoples divided and reunited, Helen reflects on her own upbringing during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. And the birds she spots along the way invoke the spirit of her father, his love of birds and the legacy of his religion and occasional melancholy.
Helen’s life-affirming journey proves to be both literal and metaphorical – and a celebration of humanity and all its quirky individualism.”Saraband Books
Helen is not your typical trans-continental cyclist. And this is not your typical trans-continental cycling book. One of the nicest aspects of cycling is that it forces you to stop what you are doing (apart from the physical action of the turning the pedals, nudging the handlebars, shifting the gears and applying the brakes) and gives you time – forces you even – to think. I spent many years commuting by bicycle from Reading in Berkshire, where I used to live, to the school where I used to work in Henley-on-Thames. Most of my planning was done either on the way to work or on the way home as I pedalled across the beautiful rural corner of Oxfordshire that linked the two towns, often whilst basking in the warmth of the rising or setting sun. The cycling created space in my life to reflect upon what was about to happen and what had just happened. I might not have been able to put the PowerPoint together or mark books on the bike, but I could at least dedicate some quality time to thinking about it. And that was invaluable.
I’m guessing Helen did a lot of this kind of reflective thinking as she cycled from England to her destination in Turkey and this is clearly mirrored in the book which is half cycling travelogue and half memoir of her growing up during the early years of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Last year I wrote a post for CyclingEurope.org about Emily Chappell’s book Where There’s A Will. Helen Moat’s book couldn’t be more different, indeed the two books lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum of cycling experience; one full of drama, anguish, dirt and pain, the other full of warmth, gentle humour, contemplation and, above all, family.
Where the two books coalesce is in their honesty. Helen was brought up within a strict, religious family and she writes with commendable openness about the impact such an upbringing had on her childhood and how it continues to have consequences in her adult life. Her father, who plays a key role in the book, is described in starkly contrasting ways; positive and not-so-positive, but always with enormous respect and, in the main, fondness.
Having never attempted to write a travelogue that combines a cycling journey and a childhood memoir, I’m perhaps taking a leap into the unknown here, but I’m guessing that all those hours on the bicycle, pedalling up and down the hills and mountains of Europe, created the space in Helen’s mind to truly understand where she had come from and her feelings towards her family. Just as I was able to plan my lessons and reflect on how they had gone down with the kids as I cycled to and from Henley-on-Thames, Helen was able to do the same with ‘life’ and all its complexities.
What Helen has produced is a very well-written, poetic travelogue full of love for Europe and Europeans (and we certainly need as much of that as we can get at the moment). But it’s also an honest and warm dissection of her inner self and why she is who she is. I’m not sure if I could ever manage to be so open. Highly recommended!
A Time For Birds is published by Saraband Books on April 9th.