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.

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.

Virtual adventures

I seem to be spending a lot of time on virtual adventures at the moment. It is something I have always done since I was a teenager but today’s media makes it so easy that there is a danger of overdosing on armchair adrenalin. Back in my youth I read just about every account available of people climbing Everest or trekking to some pole or other. I attended lectures and slide shows given by the likes of Chris Bonington and Doug Scott and waited impatiently for their next book so I could conquer another unexplored peak vicariously. My own adventures were always a little less daring or exotic but they still fulfilled that deep rooted desire to explore both the world around me and the me, inside me.

With the profusion of TV channels now available and the blossoming of the internet there is no longer any need to wait for the next book to be published. There are countless tales of journeys available covering every corner of the globe, using all modes of transport and based on an ever increasing range of themes. In the last month alone I have followed Sean Conway’s run from John O’ Groats to Lands End, Emily Chappell’s ridiculous winter bike ride through Alaska in impossibly cold conditions and most recently Richard Reeve’s delightful odyssey as he visits a hundred British micro pubs by bicycle. Talk about a child in a sweet shop, the choice is endless.

Right now I am sharing adventures past and present both in the form of a good old fashioned book and various web sites. Anna Hughes’ book, Eat, Sleep, Cycle, is the account of her whirlwind ride around Britain, as is the blog of the same trip by Bill Honeywell back in 2011.

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

Moidart in Scotland, time for reflection

I read these things for lots of reasons. Reading an account of a journey I have made myself, like the one around Britain by bike, is a chance to compare and reflect and if it’s a blog by somebody I have actually met it lends another slant to the story. It is sometimes possible to fill in gaps in the tales based on a little knowledge of personality and circumstances. Dick Edie was a lovely host in Scotland that Gill and I stayed with last summer. He is riding across Canada worrying about bears but fulfilling a dream and James Harvey that we met at the Cycle Touring Festival has just left the northern most point of Norway at the start of a six month cycle trip that will take him to southern Spain and on to Istanbul and maybe beyond. Sometimes it is just the sheer audacity of what some of these people are doing that fills me with awe. It really doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the trip itself appeals to me personally. Following Sean Conway as he ran down the length of Britain covering up to thirty miles in a day was fascinating in a “you wouldn’t catch me in a million years doing that” sort of way. Likewise, Sarah Outen, who is about to put to sea in a rowing boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the final leg of her round the world, self-propelled  journey. James’ bike ride through Europe on the other hand sounds delightful, something I would genuinely like to do. Whether I am tempted by the trip or not, I can drift off to another world for a few minutes or hours and dream of future adventures of my own. I do find myself pondering what it is about other people’s fun and games that is so attractive though. What makes these journeys so fascinating and why people do them?

When I think back to those early pioneers that went to unexplored places I wonder how different it was for them. When the likes of Columbus set sail or Mallory set out from base camp they were literally going into the unknown. That is surely exploring in its purest form. Now it is almost impossible on this small planet to go to places no one has ever been to before so did they experience something that was fundamentally different from what James or Dick will? Maybe not. You see whilst I am a little bit jealous that they were the first to discover, conquer, summit or whatever, I suspect that the element of being the first was probably quite a small part of the overall experience. I am sure it is very satisfying to go down in the record books as the first person to stand on a particular mountain or complete a triathlon of the length of Britain (Sean Conway had cycled and swam the whole thing before he ran it!) but surely the journey is the real essence of the experience rather than the record.

It would be easy to think that there is nothing left to explore these days when you dig around on the internet and see so many amazing journeys taking place. Surely every ‘first’ has been claimed. Or has it? There is one goal that remains unconquered and will always stay that way. The goal of understanding yourself. That is what I suspect these adventures are ultimately about. All my reading and viewing of other people’s far flung challenges leaves me prodding and poking at what it is that makes me tick but I don’t get many answers. They only make me thirstier for knowledge and understanding. The answers start to come when I embark on the real thing. When I take the first step on the trail or ride the first mile of the road to somewhere I have never been before. That is when the exploration starts and that is when I learn a little bit more about myself. That is when I climb a little bit closer to that elusive summit of self-knowledge.

Reading other peoples stories is a little bit like smelling the Sunday dinner cooking. It gets the juices flowing and hints of something delicious to come. The blogs and books keep the excitement ticking over at a low simmer. For now the necessity of things like earning a living have to come first but the reading confirms that it’s only a matter of time before the pot comes to the boil and the next adventure into the unknown will begin. Until then I will settle for travelling in a virtual world and say thank you to all those that make that possible. Enjoy your journeys and keep those wonderful words coming.

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