I’m going to stop playing it cool, and admit that I am somewhat overwhelmed by this week’s award. Excited and proud too, but mostly overwhelmed. I feel like I’ve given myself a lot to live up to. And it’s brought on a bad case of writer’s block, since I can no longer pretend that this blog is only read by me, my Dad, and a couple of friends when they’re bored at work.
Exactly the same thing happened when my last blog became popular. I wrote a post about the closure of a popular courier watering hole, Buffalo Bill (the godfather of London couriers) linked to it on Moving Target, and all of a sudden my daily page hits shot up into triple figures. Knowing that hundreds of people were now reading my blog, most of them unknown to me, brought on a bad case of performance anxiety, and I felt the need to issue a disclaimer, in order to reduce their expectations as much as possible. I’m feeling a similar need now.
Since my RGS debut I’ve given talks to a few other schools and organizations, and found I enjoy it immensely. One huge advantage of talking over blogging is that you get an instant reaction, the moment the words leave your mouth, and this helps you to tailor what you’re saying minute by minute, sentence by sentence. If the audience laugh easily, you can shoehorn in a few more jokes. If they start to fidget and yawn, you know to wrap up your discussion of early Persian architecture and move on to the story about being arrested in Abbottabad. If they look confused, you can speak more slowly, or simplify your language.
This doesn’t happen with writing. The audience is almost entirely invisible and anonymous, and whatever you choose to say to them is a leap of faith. They’ve enjoyed what you’ve written so far, or they wouldn’t be reading, but there’s no guarantee that whatever you’re planning to say next will meet with their approval. It’s easier when I just forget about it, the way I used to forget about the audience when I acted in plays, because I could barely see them across the footlights, but sometimes that’s not so easy.
When I gave my lecture in Hong Kong, I met several long-time readers of my blog, and knew that I’d be gaining a few more. A few people got in touch afterwards, and told me they were looking forward to my next post. The same has happened in the wake of my award. My viewing figures have doubled. I know there are a lot of people watching, but I only have the vaguest idea of who they are. Mind you, when I try to think about who they might be, it gets even harder. I know that my readership ranges from age 8 to age 80, across many different cultural, religious, educational and linguistic backgrounds. Trying to write something that I think will please, enlighten and entertain them all is an impossible task.
Of course, as someone will tell me every time I start fretting about this, people are reading this blog because they like what I write – so all I need to do is keep doing what I’m already doing. The trouble is, life is constantly changing at the moment, and so is the way I write. It’s nothing like my courier blog, which got better and better the more I got to know my subject. Here, I can’t get to know my subject, because it’s always new.
As I’ve come to realize, cycling round the world isn’t a single journey. It has many different journeys and many different stories within it. Already the early days of this trip seem as distant and as different as my teenage years or my early childhood. There were the Nutella days – the easy, indulgent, autumnal ride through the European autumn. Then the Turkish winter, with all its sweeping snowy vistas, grey and blue skies, freezing fingers and toes, and cosy nights in the tent, burning my lips on hot soup. (I yearn for the simplicity and satisfaction of those days.) There were the busy sociable days of Lahore and Islamabad, and all my righteous indignation over how misrepresented Pakistanis were by the rest of the world. Then the horribly hot and painful struggle across the Taklamakan Desert, where every cell of my mind and body was focused on just keeping going and getting through it. And now the social whirl of Tokyo, baking cakes, giving talks, going for runs, trying to sort out the next few thousand miles, and all the scary logistics of getting myself, my bike and all my kit across the Pacific. A lot has changed since I set off last September. If you’re still expecting the kind of stories I told back then, you’re likely to be disappointed.
People regularly ask me whether I’ll be writing a book about all this when I get to the end, and this seems like less and less of a good idea. How could I possibly condense four years (or however long it takes) into a mere 200 pages, and how could I hope to do every episode justice if I can only write in one style? I now tell people there might well be several books – perhaps one big round-the-world travelogue, then a book of essays about various things that outraged me along the way, maybe also a family album with stories of all the friends I’ve made, monographs on particular countries or cities that captured my interest, countless magazine articles and blog posts, a how-to guide for women who want to ride bikes …maybe even a PhD thesis, one day.
Likewise, this blog has varied a lot, and will vary still more. Here’s the disclaimer:
This is a travel blog, but only sometimes. I also talk about cake a lot. Sometimes I go off on feminist tangents. Sometimes I reminisce about the life I left behind. Sometimes I introduce you to people I’ve met along the way. Sometimes I share my inner demons. Sometimes I wax lyrical about my abiding lover affair with the road.
And who knows where it – and I – will go in the future. All I can safely tell you is that it’ll change a lot. And I hope you’ll stick around. It’s been nice having you with me so far.