Words on wheels

I’m still in Hong Kong, and my enforced holiday from cycling has given me plenty of time and space to think about the world, my life and everything. (You might have guessed this from the inordinately long and unusually frequent blog posts I’ve been writing recently.)

The end (of Asia) is in sight. I got my new Chinese visa on the second attempt, and they only gave me another 15 days, but to my surprise I don’t mind in the slightest. That’s enough time to race through the remaining 1,500km to Tianjin, and then I can wash my hands of China (which, despite its many charms, could never hope to supplant Iran and Pakistan in my affections) and take a ferry across to South Korea and Japan, both of which are reassuringly compact in comparison, and will be refreshingly new and exciting. (China is almost unfeasibly large for a cyclist. Qinghai alone could eat South Korea seven times over, and still have enough room for a few of Japan’s outlying islands. That said, Qinghai was one of my favourite bits.) And then, somehow, over the ocean to America, which still feels like a distant dream, but will be reality in just a few short months.

Of course, there are lots of details to be hammered out. I don’t yet know how I’m getting across the Pacific. (If you have a boat, or know someone who has a boat, or know someone whose brother’s ex-girlfriend’s mother-in-law has a boat, please get in touch.) And I still know relatively little about Japan and Korea, beyond that they are a nice size to cycle across, have very good food, and will generously let me in without a visa. So a lot of research is happening, or will be, when I manage to stop shooting my mouth. (I wonder if you can get verbal immodium for verbal diarrhoea.)

As well as thinking about the next few thousand miles, I’m also trying to think about where I’m going intellectually, conceptually, and professionally. Although I’m reluctant (sometimes to the point of self-sabotage) to commercialize and commodify my expedition, and sceptical of those pretentious self-styled ‘adventurers’ everyone loves to hate, I have started to accept that the only way to be able to sustain this project in the long term is to make a career out of it, and that since no one will actually pay me for miles cycled, I’m going to have to find other ways of bringing in capital.

There is an excellent article about this on Tom Allen’s website. Read the comments as well as the post; they’ll give you a good idea of the ambivalence surrounding professional adventurers, and will save me having to argue it all out here, as I had been planning to. I don’t want to turn myself into a product, or open myself to accusations of being a sell-out, and I feel embarrassed about making money from things I’d be doing anyway (viz. writing and talking). But then again, I very much enjoy these things, and a few people seem to want to read what I write and listen to what I say, and if I can make money out of this then I won’t have to go home halfway through my trip and spend a couple of years temping and waitressing to pay for the remainder of it. (Actually, who am I kidding – I’d go back to being a cycle courier, and it would take a decade to make enough money to escape again.)

So I’ve started to look around for ways of earning money, and to wonder whether I can really persuade someone to give me a three-figure sum for a couple of thousand words when they could just read them here for free.  (Or copy-paste them, as a couple of unscrupulous websites have done recently – yes, I’m watching you.)

This haphazard and half-hearted research has at least confirmed one thing – that a lot of very talented people are writing about cycling at the moment. As well as all the blogs (off the top of my head I recommend Ellen’s, Tom’s and Michael’s, but there are many worth reading), there are books by people like Rob Penn and Matt Seaton and Will Fotheringham, and a plethora of boutique magazines, including Rouleur, Boneshaker and The Ride Journal. I’ve long been saying that someone ought to compile an anthology of some of the original and high quality writing that’s been produced by cycle couriers over the years. (If no one takes the hint I’ll probably end up doing so myself.) And during last night’s insomniac web wanderings I was delighted to discover Julian Sayarer’s columns in the New Statesman, and to rediscover Jon Day’s in the London Review of Books.

I’ll admit to feeling a soupçon of envy, along with a slight regret that I didn’t get there first (the LRB in particular is one of my favourite publications). But these are drowned out by my pride and satisfaction in seeing friends and colleagues do so well, and by the pleasure I’ve found in their writing. Jon and I both ended up on the courier circuit after failing to get PhD funding. He eventually made it back to Oxford, whereas I got sidetracked and ended up where I am now. Julian is another former courier, who became famous for cycling round the world in record time, but is sadly best known for unwisely using his platform to slag off the previous record holder. I met him briefly on the Dunwich Dynamo last year – he somehow knew who I was and that I was planning to cycle round the world (it wasn’t official at that point, but it’s hard to keep a secret among London couriers), and asked casually if I was considering a record attempt, before I realized who I was talking to. He turned out to be much nicer guy than his unfortunate online reputation suggested.  Both Jon and Julian are excellent writers and, just as crucially, have a lot to say. Next time you’re waiting for me to emerge from the wilderness and update my blog, I’d recommend you go and read their stuff instead.

The question, of course, is how an activity as deceptively simple as riding a bike manages to generate such a rich, varied and apparently inexhaustible stream of literature. You wouldn’t think there was that much to say about it. When I turned my back on academia and become a cycle courier, I assumed that I was bidding farewell to the life of the mind, and that my days of reading and writing and arguing were over. In fact, the opposite was the case. Over the three years that followed, I finally came of age as a writer, and I feel a strange but sincere sense of gratitude towards the city, the industry, the community and, most of all, the two-wheeled contraption that enabled this to happen.

I thought for a long time that the success of my courier blog had to do with the fact that I’d stumbled across a subject (i.e. being an opinionated female bike messenger) that few other people had ever bothered to explore, which left me far more room for originality than I’d have found if I’d tried to write yet another PhD thesis on feminist theory or postcolonial literature. And I worried that I’d lose that advantage when I switched to touring, since there’s already a long-established canon of round-the-world literature, and it’s growing all the time. I’d go from being a stingray in a fishtank to being a small fish in a very big pond.

Again, my assumptions have been slightly off the mark. I am still a small fish in a big pond, and that’s unlikely to change, but I’ve found my new lifestyle just as fecund and fruitful as I did my old one. It’s slightly intimidating trying to carve my own niche in a genre where so many people have already written so much, but all these role models provide me with a ready source of inspiration, and my inherent competitive streak has found plenty to get its teeth into. I’ve become a lot more rigorous with what I say and how I say it than when I was writing as That Messenger Chick, usually half-asleep after work and dropping bits of pasta onto the keyboard.

In fact, I find I’m grateful to be part of such a bustling literary scene. There are numerous fads within cycling, of course, and it remains to be seen which of them will endure and which will wilt away within a couple of years, but I’m convinced that, as a genre, it’s here to stay, and excited to see where its improbably limitless potential will take us all.

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