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At last I have my focus.

Maybe more for me than for you, I feel compelled to place a full stop in this blog. A marker to move forward from after a fair bit of reflection on my part. I should warn you that it isn’t funny.

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At last I have my focus! After spending the last twelve months and more thrashing around trying to work out what the hell this blog is supposed to be about I finally have some answers. I have been reading advice from other bloggers and focus seems to be the one requirement of a good blog that everybody agrees on. Now, after giving it a lot of thought, I am finally making some sense out of what it is I want to write about.

It really is so very simple and it’s been staring me in the face all along. The blog started as an account of a life changing adventure when we decided to sell everything, give up our jobs and take off on a six month 4,500 mile cycle tour round the coast of Britain. But that was only how the blog began, not our story. This story really started several years earlier when we had one of those; late-night, second-bottle-of- wine, what’s-it-all-about type of conversations that ended with an agreement that we should never settle for the mundane and never stop questioning the way we live.

We have been focussed on those ideas ever since and that, of course, is what the blog is about. I may have gone off on some pretty wacky tangents at times but when I look back on all the posts and consider what I want to write about in the future it’s the same topic as that which forms a fundamental thread running through our lives.

I don’t think we ever had a road to Damascus moment but we have gradually moved from a focus on jobs, money and possessions to one that centres on free time, new experiences and living a simple life. It’s all about needing less rather than earning more. All the big events and decisions in the last few years have revolved around this including the bike ride, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time. The move to part-time, low paid work, and the recent purchase of the mobile park home are further steps along the way. There is a narrow boat somewhere on the horizon but that’s still a dream at the moment. Each event has led to less stuff, less space and a lot less money. It has also given us a huge sense of freedom and flexibility. It feels a bit like the first day of our big bike ride when tears rolled down my face as we rode the first few miles and I contemplated the scale of what lay ahead. The unknown emptiness of the next six months was exhilarating, like a long dark night just waiting to be filled with sweet dreams. (Ironically, it may well be possible to achieve a similar sensation by having unlimited money but that option was never coming our way.)

The blog is my attempt to provide some insight into what our chosen route involves. We don’t have a manual entitled “Nirvana in six easy steps- the simple life” though I expect there may well be one. We have no idea whether what we are doing is the answer but it’s an option. It’s not about knowing the answers anyway; it’s more about having endless questions. What if? Could we? Should we? We are just attempting to answer the questions rather than letting them hang in the air. It’s about not getting to the end of the journey still wondering what would have happened if we had taken that fork in the road.

A simple life

A simple life

So there is the focus for this blog. It’s about our journey trying to make the most of whatever time we have left. Just like everybody else I suppose. We’re not trying to say it’s the right way. It’s just our way.

Self-promotion

I really struggle with the whole self-promotion thing but I have decided I just need to get over it. No matter how uncomfortable it might make me feel, and despite my complete lack of musical talent, I need to start blowing my own trumpet. I tried to write an elegant post all about the conflict between modesty and bragging but I gave up and it’s gone in the trash. I suppose it just comes down to the following:

  1. Finally, I really believe in this blog and I want it to be a success.
  2. The only way it is going to be a success is if lots of people read it.
  3. One way of getting more people to read it is to ask the existing readers to promote it. (That’s you)
  4. Please could you click the little buttons at the bottom of my posts and share the post on Facebook, Twitter etc. if you like what you have read. (Not this one obviously)
  5. I have created a Facebook ‘Fan Page’ here and I would like lots of people to ‘Like’ it so that it will get more publicity.

All I can offer in exchange is a promise to keep writing.

Cheers! Here's to me.

Cheers! Here’s to me.

Thank you. That’s all.

I’m not dead, I’m just resting

Time for a breather

Time for a breather

Well this is it. This is my final post from my ‘post a day for thirty days’ challenge. I have to say that it doesn’t compare to getting to the last few metres of a half marathon (the longest I have ever run) because I’m not exhausted and I should be able to walk unassisted tomorrow but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am relieved.

The pressure of posting something every day has led to me putting out material that I have been less than happy about on many occasions. I have found that quite stressful. To paraphrase the immortal Eric Morecambe, they might have been all the right words but they weren’t necessarily always in the right order. Whilst it’s good to have learned from the experience I don’t think there would be anything to gain now by continuing with the same commitment every day.

I’m going to keep blogging regularly but I want to write when I feel I really have something to say and to spend more time working on each piece until I feel happy with it. I think there is more chance of improving my writing that way rather than focussing on quantity.

There have been quite a few days this month when I have really struggled to come up with a subject and ended up writing several posts that have all ended up in the digital bin because I really didn’t think they had any value. I’m still trying to find my feet in terms of subject matter and style so I apologise for the crazy randomness of the topics over the last thirty days. Hopefully most readers will have had the common sense not to persevere with the posts that weren’t to their taste. If anybody has any feedback on what style or subject matter they find most entertaining I would love to hear it. You can comment on the blog or send me a message on FB, Twitter or by e-mail. (See the contact page)

Thanks to all of you that have taken the time to read this stuff and for the encouraging feedback you have provided both here on Clockwise Words, on Social Media and privately. I love the process of writing and sometimes I just put something together and then confine it to a dusty folder on the hard drive, but when I do decide it is worth sharing it’s the thought that I might have provided a little bit of entertainment or amusement that makes it so rewarding.

And if there is anybody out there that has actually read all 17,935 January words (plus 452 for today) then I owe you a pint, or a cup of tea. You’ve earned it.

Thoughts on ‘What Goes Around’ by Emily Chappell

I’ve never attempted to write a book review and I’m not sure if that is what this is but I promised you I would let you know what I thought of Emily Chappell’s debut book, What Goes Around, so here goes.

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Great book, average carpet

I have to say that I approached the book with high expectations having read a couple of reviews and heard Emily being interviewed on Woman’s hour on Radio 4 and also on the BBC’s Meet the Author both of which refer to the quality of the writing in between asking crass questions like “why do cyclists jump red lights”. I freely admit that if I didn’t know Emily from her blog I probably would never have bought this book as the subject matter itself doesn’t really grab me. I will begrudgingly admit to a certain admiration for the combination of cool and skill that cycle couriers exude and having owned a ‘fixie’ (single speed fixed wheel bicycle) for a couple of years I do see the appeal but I am not a fan of London or cities in general and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know all the gritty details of a cycle courier’s daily grind. These things aside I still opened the book with a certain frisson of anticipation and excitement.

As I hoped and expected it didn’t take more than a few pages to realise that this was a book with layers. On the top there is the often exquisitely described feelings of triumph and terror when engulfed by the madness of London’s traffic whilst balancing on two skinny wheels and the sheer frustration of simply trying to find the destination belonging to the address written on the package for delivery. I loved the description of Soho coming alive in a morning and the refuse lorry that will  “shatter the silence, the ear-drums of passers-by and a thousand empty bottles as they pour from two upended dustbins into the open lorry’s mouth ” and many other lovingly crafted images of the sights and smells of the city. Constantly weaving through this graphic picture are the people and the relationships that are the real meat of the book for me. The tears and the laughter, camaraderie and friendship and most of all the love, the lovers and the heartbreak of loves lost. In parts the book is raw with emotion and Emily doesn’t hold back in laying bare her soul as she slaloms between battles with foul mouthed and sometimes violent van drivers, the unique pain that only a broken heart can bring and the sexual tension on meeting a potential new lover.

The final layer to this sweet, sweet cake is the writing. I freely admit that there were parts of the book where I had had enough of the minutiae of what it takes to get a parcel from A to B but the writing always carried me through via a turn of phrase or delightful analogy that brought a smile to my lips and, I confess, a certain envy of her craft. It’s a beautiful read.

Throughout this book about cycling and London there are subtle insights into the worlds of feminism and sexuality. Emily is refreshingly matter of fact about her own sexuality and gives us a sometimes painful and sometimes amusing glimpse of the subtle complications that being gay can add to the world of love and relationships. And a lot of men may find the book a subtle but firm reminder that there is still a long, long way to go before we can truly say that we have confined inequality of the sexes to the history books. I don’t mind admitting that I was taken aback several times by the word ‘she’ where I stereotypically expected to read ‘he’ and each time I was slightly embarrassed to be caught out again.

Finally, I want to mention passion. I recall very clearly during the early 80s watching David Bellamy on the television presenting programs about botany. I had no particular interest in the subject but his passion and enthusiasm were completely infectious. Whatever you might think of his more bizarre views on climate change, he taught me that passion for a subject was half the battle to making that subject interesting and he and other presenters and writers since have widened my perspectives on many topics I didn’t think I was interested in. Emily has that wonderful combination of passion and knowledge and an ability to communicate them through the written word and that is what makes the book as a whole a success for me. At no point reading it did I consider moving to London to pursue a career as a cycle courier but I did find myself desperately hoping that she will go on to write about her other cycling adventures around the world and whatever other escapades she gets up to. And if she suddenly develops a passion for crochet or macramé I’ll even give that a read too.

No better reward

Something wonderful happened yesterday. Somebody said on social media that what I had written in yesterday’s blog had made them laugh. There is no better reward.

No greater reward than laughter

No greater reward than laughter

I enjoy putting these posts together. Once I have my teeth into a topic the words just tumble out and before I know it I am editing the article down lest it gets too long and tedious. I re-read the initial outpouring and then comes the best bit. The fine tuning. Sometimes it’s just a single word, sometimes a sentence or whole paragraph that I change but that for me is the real fun of writing. Occasionally, like today, I will discard the entire post and topic (this is the third attempt today) because either I don’t like the writing or I don’t think it will be of any interest to anybody. It’s not a waste of time because I have still enjoyed the process; it just doesn’t see the light of day.

Once I am satisfied with what I have written, or at least as satisfied as I suspect I am going to get then I’ll post it on the web site. Then I worry. I don’t know why exactly because I tell myself I have had my pound of flesh but of course I’m just kidding myself. If I wasn’t trying to entertain anybody I wouldn’t post this stuff would I? But it’s a bit like doing stand-up comedy in an empty room.

When we were travelling it was easy because I had a story to tell. Once the blog had gathered some momentum it really wasn’t down to what I wanted. I felt that I had a duty to keep the tale going and let friends and family in particular know how we were doing. I understood that people wanted the next instalment whatever the quality. I don’t have that excuse anymore because there is no story. The writing now has to stand on its own and it’s a constant worry.

After I release a new post if there hasn’t been any reaction within a couple of hours I start to panic. Was it rubbish? Boring? Did I offend somebody inadvertently? Maybe I should stop making stuff public and just write for myself. Then somebody ‘likes’ my post and it’s OK again. Another few hours go by and I’m losing confidence again. I might even go back and re-read it once more to see if I have missed something. And so it goes on. I can of course rationalise things by reminding myself that I have had lots of favourable comments on the blog but nothing completely erases that niggle of self-doubt. Maybe it never will go away.

It’s just great to get comments and feedback on the blog because it means somebody is actually reading it. But to make somebody laugh is more than I could hope for. So thank you to that person in the empty room that laughed out loud yesterday. For me, that is the best possible reason to carry on posting this stuff.

Seven days, seven blogs. What have I started?

If you have been reading the blog again this week then you can skip this post. It’s a bit of a repeat of the first one of the year but I’ve had a change of heart and my confidence is returning, mostly thanks to some of you readers, so here is another attempt at explaining where I am.

I was really disappointed with myself for letting the blog fall by the wayside in 2015 so I thought I would start this year off with a bit of a challenge and try and get back into the swing of it. I decided not to do the #dryjanuary challenge that I did last year but it’s always nice to start things off with a bit of a test so I have promised myself I will try and write every day and actually publish what I write. The hardest part about the challenge by far is thinking up topics to write about and then being brave enough to hit the publish button. For this reason I have kept a bit of a low profile for the first week and only people that have either kept their subscription to the blog or stumbled on it by accident will have been aware of the first seven posts. I am very relieved and incredibly grateful to have received some lovely encouraging comments over the last few days though, so I’m afraid you’re stuck with me now. I’ll try and keep a daily post going throughout January and see if it becomes a habit.

As it happens it’s been quite an eventful week to start the year and I haven’t actually found it too difficult to find things to write about. From the prospect of possibly going blind in one eye to a death in the family and a visit from my sister I have ended up with a kind of pick ‘n mix counter of subject material which has been great. I haven’t even touched on learning to fly a drone yet. Well, when I say fly, it’s more a case of launching the thing into the air and then seeing which piece of furniture or potted plant it will destroy next. (The spider plant is looking very neat at the moment.) It’s great having interesting or amusing subjects to cover but what I would really like to crack is making the writing speak for itself rather than relying on the story. That’s the challenge that really fires me up. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than reading something and realising that it is actually the writing that I am enjoying as much as or even more than the subject matter.

I am conscious of the fact that this blog started life as an account of a cycle adventure and I know lots of people who followed that story have got bored and gone away now but I make no apologies for that. I’m sure I will touch on cycling again once we get back on the bikes but for now this blog is my play thing. It’s a chance to play with words and phrases and to try and be creative. To try to turn jumbled thoughts into understandable ideas, to paint pictures that convey feelings and emotions or just to tell a story in a way that might amuse the reader. I would like to be able to promise that everything I write will be funny, incisive, entertaining and meaningful but it’s very unlikely to be a promise I could keep. What I can promise is that I will enjoy the writing and if a few people enjoy the reading then I’ll be happy.

Here’s a nice picture just to say thanks for sticking with me this far.

You can't beat a rainbow over the sea

You can’t beat a rainbow over the sea

Excited about this book

I have pre-ordered a copy of this book and I am eagerly awaiting delivery in the next week or two. It’s a book about the life of a cycle courier in London and you might think it a strange choice because I am not really interested in cycle couriering and I don’t particularly like London. I am only excited because of who wrote the book. Emily Chappell, the author, has been writing an excellent blog for over five years now and I always look forward to her posts. I have met her a few times and she is a lovely engaging person who endlessly plays down her prodigious cycling achievements and award winning writing talent. On one level she is just another cyclist who is good company, easy to talk to and somebody I admire because she can cycle further and faster than I ever will. But she is also, that rare example of a writer who is able to engage me in her subject matter whatever that subject matter might be.

I admit to being biased because some of Emily’s writing has involved epic cycling adventures and the sheer audacity of her journeys would be worth reading about even if the writing was only average, which it isn’t. Cycling across deserts at break neck speed to beat visa deadlines or riding through Alaska in temperatures so low that even a simple puncture can lead to a life threatening situation are the kind of material that any writer ought to thrive on, and she does. What is remarkable about Emily’s writing though is that I wait eagerly for her next blog post and I really don’t mind whether it’s about riding through the night on a transcontinental bicycle race or a stripped bare account of how she dealt with depression after returning from the first stage of her round the world ride. It’s the writing that comes first and it brings the subject along with it kicking and screaming. When she is writing about solo cycle touring it also becomes clear very quickly that the subject isn’t cycling at all. Like all the best writers the apparent topic is merely a courier for something deeper and more meaningful and as such it really doesn’t matter whether you are a cyclist or not. You are a human being and the engagement comes from how a fellow human being opens up and exposes our basic motivations and desires. She has a way of drilling down into the core of what makes us tick and that is what appeals to me.

I am looking forward to finding out what it’s like to be a cycle courier and learning something about life in London but I am looking forward much more to the writing and to what lies beneath the surface subject. I’ll let you know what I think in due course. In the meantime, this is what it’s like to ride up a mountain in the dark.