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.

Post trip blues

When we were travelling several people gave us advice on dealing with the post trip blues. Apparently it’s quite common to get depressed when all the constant change and stimulation comes to an abrupt end. Several bloggers have written eloquently about this problem, Emily Chappell in particular really lays it bare in this post. So I was on my guard when we settled back down, braced for signs of any downward spiral of emotions. I was just beginning to juggle with the contrasting emptiness of life after travel and the realisation of the enormity of what we had achieved when my Mum died. Suddenly our whole post trip experience stopped in its tracks to be replaced by the turmoil of grief, loss, guilt and dealing with funeral arrangements.

The biggest obstacle to going on our ride in the first place was always leaving my Mum. Although she was very well looked after in a lovely care home, Gill and I were still her closest relatives geographically and her main regular visitors. I really struggled with the idea of not seeing her for up to six months even though other relatives promised to step in. Then there was her dementia. Her extreme short term memory loss meant that she might not even realise that we weren’t visiting. On the other hand, it also meant that I couldn’t share our plans with her and seek her approval. Something that saddened me a great deal as I feel sure she would have approved. It was a huge relief to visit her on our return and find that nothing had really changed and she was her usual smiling self. Sadly, that didn’t last and her health deteriorated rapidly just a few days after we got back. We had been home just 23 days when she died.

 

Always a smile

Always a smile

I always thought of our adventure as something huge and life changing. Maybe that is still the case but for now, at least, it doesn’t feel that way. Set against the loss of somebody that has been a key part of my life for the last 57 years, a bike ride, even a very long bike ride, just doesn’t seem terribly important. We met some great people during the five months we were away and almost certainly gained new friends for life. If it were possible to measure those gains in some way they would be substantial. Compare them though, against the combined weight of the loss felt by all the family and friends of my Mum and they don’t look quite so impressive. We gain friendship and love slowly. They are  acquired over years, even over a life time but they can be taken away in an instant.

Maybe, over time, the signifcance of my Mum’s death will fade and perhaps that of our trip will grow. As time adds depth to the friendships we made and the memories we created, perhaps the scale of what we did will come back to me. Or perhaps it won’t. At the moment I can’t help but feel a little bit cheated. Robbed of the sensation of achievement. But perhaps there is some compensation in what I have learned. Perhaps what really shapes us isn’t what we do or where we go. It’s who we love and how we love them and, of course, how we are loved. And as is so often the case, you only know it when you lose it. I would like to think that the friends we made over the last six months will, over time, help to fill the enormous hole that has been left in our lives. I hope I am right, because otherwise, it really was just a very long bike ride.

Vera to the rescue.

Our ride has come to a halt for now but it isn’t over by any means. Here’s a quick update on where we are and, more importantly, where we go from here.

This is my brother in law, Gordon, known to all his friends and family as Bunny.

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He’s a microlight pilot and distributor and all round glass-half-full if not overflowing kind of bloke. He also does some part time work for this company:

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They buy and sell used motor homes and seem to do it rather well judging by how incredibly busy they were when we went to see them the other day.

And this is Vera, the Nissan Vanette that Tom who owns the company has kindly offered to lend us so that we can continue our dream.

Vera to the rescue

Vera to the rescue

(We called her Vera by the way)

Put the three together and add my sister into the mix and they have made it possible for us to continue our trip around the coast of Britain.

Bunny and Christine

Bunny and Christine

I phoned my sister in Taunton last week to explain that Gill was in need of some serious TLC and asked if we could come and stay for a few days. Of course she said yes, as I knew she would, and I gave her the full details of our situation and just mentioned that amongst other ideas we had discussed hiring a vehicle so that Gill could drive while I continued to cycle along the coast. The very next day Bunny said he might be able to get hold of a small van for us and within a couple of days of arriving in Taunton we were introduced to Tom at Somerset Motorhome Centre and given the keys to Vera.

Thanks Tom

Thanks Tom

I can’t believe how kind some people are and how much this trip has done to strengthen my faith in human nature. So a great big thank you to my sister Christine, Bunny and Tom, you are all now very much a part of our story.

Now that we have the van we are very excited about getting back on the road but we can’t now set off again until Monday. Insuring the van short term proved to be slightly tricky plus we have been invited to a family party on Sunday so we will be resting for another few days yet. It’s a hard life. The plan is to drive down to Penzance and camp and on Tuesday I will continue cycling around Cornwall while Gill takes on the role of support. Vera is big enough to take both bikes and all our gear so all options will be available if Gill decides she wants to do any cycling or we want to go and visit other family and friends. We will be able to meet up at points along the route, get together for lunch and spend the evenings together at a campsite. The suggestion that Gill will be able to set up camp and prepare a delicious three course meal each evening is still under discussion. That’s the plan and we are both very happy with it.

It won't be an easy ride for Gill either. She bought this in Taunton.

It won’t be an easy ride for Gill either. She bought this in Taunton.

But not everybody is. Some people have suggested that there are only really two options. Either we finish the ride together on our bikes or we go home and come back another day to complete it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course but the problem with those suggestions is that they aren’t what either of us want. We can’t wait indefinitely for Gill to want to carry on, (she may never do) and neither of us wants to go home because we are still enjoying the adventure. This blog is called Clockwise Words and the strap line is: “Round Britain by Bike – probably”. I added the word ‘probably’ because it was both amusing and summed up our whole attitude to the trip. We never wanted it to be an endurance event. We didn’t set out to break any records and we certainly never told anybody that we would complete the circuit no matter what. We also, privately, and without voicing it, knew that whatever happened the most important thing would be us and the very special and precious relationship that we share with each other. None of that has changed. As far as we are concerned it really doesn’t matter if one of us decides to complete the trip on a space hopper and the other on roller skates, all that matters is that we are both happy with the plan and we are.

It’s really all about the sharing for us. I realise that some people can cycle alone to the top of a hill and get complete satisfaction from seeing the view that is the reward for their efforts. That isn’t enough for me or for Gill. For us it has to be shared to be complete and preferably shared with each other. When we gasp at a breath taking view, get to the top of a particularly hard climb or come through a period of really horrible weather that is when we are closest.

That was one hill that was definitley worth a kiss.

That was one climb that was definitley worth a kiss.

That is when we are most likely to exchange a kiss, a hug or just a knowing look that binds us in the shared experience. The beauty of our new plan means that even though Gill might not be cycling alongside me we will still get some of those moments to savour along the way. Not as many admittedly, but enough to make the journey ours. We are already talking about coming back to ride the remaining part of the coast together next year but we will see about that when we look back at the whole experience over the coming months. A tandem has also featured in those talks which might be fun.

Back to business on Monday and that all important corner.

Back to business on Monday and that all important corner.

The idea of riding around the entire coast of Britain has been a dream of mine for many, many years. I have been incredibly lucky to have somebody who loves me enough to want to share it with me. I realise how fortunate I am in that, but I have another, much more important dream, that I happen to share with Gill. That is the dream of finding somebody special to love and to enjoy the world with. It is a far more precious dream than the bike ride and I want everybody to know that whatever we do, whatever we decide, that shared dream comes first. We are together on this in every way whether it involves bikes, vans or even a space hopper. So here’s to the journey and arriving back in Freckleton as team G&T. Just the way we left four months ago. Apart from having Vera with us of course.

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