A dreich day

The Scots would call it a ‘dreich day’, the Irish a ‘soft day’. Personally, I would call it a ‘bloody miserable wet day’. However you want to dress it up, I’m not inspired to experience it other than through the window and with the benefit of a full tea-pot and a glowing fire. It’s the perfect recipe for a spot of self-indulgent navel gazing.

A dreich day

I’m always conscious when I start writing that there are countless blogs out there telling us how to live our lives. From Kafir to Pilates, detoxing to mindfulness there is always some holier-than-thou preacher pushing ‘the solution’ and filling us full of guilt because we aren’t on board. They berate us for our consumerism and accuse us of destroying our precious planet whilst proffering the simple meditative, all-fulfilling alternative of living in a small space on a vegan diet in the woods. Whenever I come across these blogs I worry that maybe I am guilty of the same thing. I have never suggested that anybody ‘ought’ to cycle around Britain on a bicycle and I have never said that living on a narrow boat is in some way the ‘correct’ way to live ones life but I do worry that it could come over that way.

When I was younger I had a passion for reading accounts of unbelievable feats of bravery. Tales of near death experiences on ice encrusted peaks in the Himalayas had me spell-bound. I devoured them hungrily but I never once considered following in their footsteps. I never felt that the authors of these sagas were suggesting that I ‘ought’ to be doing the same thing or that what they did was some kind of path to enlightenment. They were having a good time and they felt compelled to share it as far as I could tell and I was happy to gorge on their adventures vicariously without ever feeling denigrated.

I write this blog because I enjoy it. It’s a handy way of exploring ideas and the world around us and writing things down helps me to get my thoughts in some kind of order. The fact that some people seem to enjoy reading it is a real bonus and that is really all there is to it. I’m not trying to tell anybody else how they should live their lives, just exploring my own choices.

Which brings me to the navel gazing. I’m trying really hard to set aside the novelty aspect of life on the boat and work out why I am enjoying the experience so much. There are obvious factors like the scenery, peace and quiet, abundant wildlife and friendly neighbours (and the stove, don’t forget the stove) but all of that could easily be attained living in a very comfortable house in the countryside.

Don’t forget the stove

The boat, on the other hand, presents plenty of reasons for not living on the water. There is a never-ending round of chores and repairs, we are always tripping over each other and there is never having enough space to store anything. We have cut our personal belongings down to a ridiculous level but there are still more ‘things’ than there are spaces to keep them in. We have limited wi-fi availability, the phone signal is dodgy and we don’t have constant running hot water a lot of the time. Last night the mains electricity was playing on off, on off all evening. Life on a boat is harder than life on land so why is it so much fun?

By modern standards our life now is quite primitive and at times less comfortable than the one we are leaving behind but at the same time I can’t help but feel it is more satisfying. It’s certainly more demanding. To some extent it’s like going back in time. My dad was a joiner and spent his working days being creative in a physically demanding job. In his limited amount of free time he was normally found repairing or restoring something or tending his modest vegetable patch in the back garden. Leisure time was a novel concept then and life was full without having to be filled. Perhaps the boat takes us back some way to that time when there was always something that needed doing as opposed to finding something to do.

Humankind has done a magnificent job of making life easier through technology. From electric tooth brushes to pneumatic nail guns we have managed to take the labour out of nearly everything we do. There is no need to walk anywhere if we don’t want to, lifts and escalators have taken the place of staircases; and digging, weeding, hoeing and harvesting are all taken care of by Tescos. Now we have so much more free time and we can go to the gym or for a run to get the exercise that used to be an integral part of everyday life. I genuinely don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad one but it does seem a bit odd when you think about it.

Our new lifestyle on our Golden Girl is definitely more taxing than our old one but at the same time it is strangely more satisfying. The simple processes of staying warm, dry and well fed require a little more effort than they used to and that in turn brings a greater sense of achievement. The boat is definitely more complex than the house was. There is more to learn, more to go wrong but also more reward from making it work. It demands more time and investment both mentally and physically and for me, at least, it’s just more interesting.

I’m going to put a note in my diary and read this again in a few months time and we’ll see if I still agree with myself or whether it turns out it’s a fool’s paradise I am living in and not a marina at all. In the mean time life on board provides me with plenty to do when I’m not contemplating mental conundrums on a dreich or soft day.

Right, enough of all this philosophical navel gazing stuff, I’m off to empty the toilet.

Still raining

It’s all about the fire

Sitting on our warm and cosy boat and staring into the fire as the ice in the marina gradually melts made me realise just how important our stove is. So important I thought I would write about it.

I have fond, if somewhat rose-tinted memories of growing up in a council house with basic central heating. I don’t mean central heating in the modern sense of the term, what I mean is that we had a coal fire and it was roughly in the centre of the house. It may have been central but it’s role of heating the whole house was plainly unachievable and our levels of comfort were indirectly proportional to how far away from the fire we were. In the depths of winter I recall changing into my pyjamas in front of the fire before attempting to get up the stairs, into my bedroom and under the bed clothes in less than five seconds, and then attempting to warm the bed up with what was left of my meagre body heat. A hot water bottle may have been deployed in extreme conditions I admit. Eight warm, snugly and peaceful hours later I would awake to find ice had formed on the inside of the bedroom windows while I had been dreaming of long hot summer holidays. Now, approaching retirement and in an era of sophisticated, thermostatically controlled, touch of a button activated heating systems I find myself once more scraping ice off the windows from the inside. It sounds grim I know but I’m actually loving it and I think I know why. I think it’s all about the fire.

Baby it’s cold outside (photo by Gill Pearson)

The option to heat your entire living space to any temperature you choose, to control which rooms are heated and when, and to be able to adjust and monitor the system from your phone seems like the ultimate convenient heating solution. The alternative of filling coal buckets, emptying ash pans and attempting to ‘move’ heat from a single source around fifty seven feet of ice clad steel tubing couldn’t possibly be seen as preferable or even acceptable could it? So why am I enjoying it? Well it’s all about the fire.

Maybe it’s the whole effort, reward cycle. After all setting the timer and thermostat on a modern central heating system doesn’t require much effort and even if you overcome the challenge of a wireless system it’s still only a momentary sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t last. You stay warm but there isn’t any sense of earning that warmth. Tending our solid fuel stove on the other hand is a never ending task that requires real physical effort and a degree of skill and organisation. Carrying a full coal scuttle the length of the boat whilst it rocks from side to side is a brilliant core workout and those 20kg bags of fuel don’t move themselves either. When it comes to keeping the fire in it will burn for ten hours without attention but during the day a little more tending gives us more control. Feeding the fire with coal, emptying the ash pan, cleaning up the dust and adjusting the ventilation to fine tune the heat output means that there is a real sense of effort and involvement in order to achieve the reward of warmth. Then there is the cooking! There is always a kettle on the go and more often than not there will be a stew or curry simmering away, filling the boat with mouth watering smells. The stove has become a crucial element of day to day life that provides warmth, hot food and a good deal of satisfaction.

The true meaning of mult-fuel

Apart from the sense of reward there may be another reason why I am just a little bit obsessed by this simple metal box. Fire has been at the heart of living for a couple of million years now so in the scheme of things our modern ways of controlling it in the form of cookers, boilers and other heating methods are new inventions and maybe in evolutionary terms we haven’t yet left the hearth behind. Nearly everybody enjoys a bonfire or a campfire and who doesn’t love a good barbecue. The idea of sitting around a fire is so ingrained in our species that it drives us to create excuses for doing it and cooking on a fire takes us back even deeper into our roots. Huddling around an open fire and baking potatoes in it couldn’t be described as practical but its attraction endures beyond far more convenient methods of preparing food or staying warm.

We’ve put several pictures on social media of our stove blazing away with pots and pans on it and I have been amazed by the level of attention these posts have attracted. It seems that food and fire are just as critically connected and central to our existence as they ever were. Despite the unbelievable technological advances that we have achieved in the past few hundred years we are still essentially driven by primitive needs and emotions and maybe that is why I am looking forward to finishing this post and putting a bit more coal on the fire. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually but for now, it’s all about the fire.

I know: the glass needs cleaning

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.

book

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.

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