I’ve had a great Christmas holiday for reading. I’ve rarely read two books quicker. Or enjoyed them as much. So it pains me to be writing this review a couple of hours after the author’s football team (Leeds United) vanquished mine (MUFC) in the FA Cup. Despite this galling start to the year I shall attempt to be impartial and fair in my review of his books.
This post is a review of ‘Moods of Future Joys’ and ‘Thunder and Sunshine’, both written by Alastair Humphreys – find them here.
The books tell the story of how Al, armed with a bicycle and his student loans, graduated from university and cycled around the world.
For a brief summary of his adventure check out this video.
Dream big and dare to fail
The first thing that strikes you about Al at the beginning of his first book – Moods of Future Joys – as he sets off from his home in Yorkshire is his self-deprecation and modesty. He doesn’t claim to be a macho adventurer. In fact, he does the opposite, readily confessing that he cried most mornings as he started riding, humbled by the enormity of the goal that he had set himself.
“Finally, I round the corner, my home is gone and it all hits me. The mounting pressure and months of denial all explore inside me, and I burst into tears. I have just left from my front door to try to cycle around the planet. I have left behind everyone that I love. If I was a brave man I would turn around right now. Go home. Go home, and admit that it was all too frightening. Instead I keep pedalling.”
Moods of Future Joys, Alastair Humphreys, p.8
This immediately makes it extremely easy to identify with Al. Here is a normal person, with the same fears and anticipations that anyone else would have if they were setting off to ride around the world on their own. It becomes increasingly hard to put the book down as he transports you on his journey and shares his adventures. He writes vividly descriptive passages with a clear passion and a genuine understanding for the places he travels through.
I am envious of his exploits, the people he meets on the way, and the fantastical places that he explores. I too want to conquer my fears of the unknown. I find myself thinking ‘I want to do this’. I have to remind myself that I have my own dreams and objectives but it’s hard to resist the wanderlust. I alternate between dreaming of my own mammoth expeditions and then shocking myself back into reality with thoughts of my obligations and responsibilities. But then I think to myself again: I’m 26, I have no responsibilities big enough to stop me doing whatever I want.
I suppose this is part of Al’s message (laid out with impressive photography in Ten Lessons from the Road): that most of the reasons we give ourselves for not doing something are false. And that if you really want to do something you should just bloody well get on and do it.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Al is being justifiably flattered by the amount of people who want to do what he has done. Sure, he didn’t invent long-range cycle adventures but he has certainly served to popularise them. A glance at the cycle expedition workshop (run by Al) at RGS’s Explore 2009 was proof enough.
‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ Yoda
‘Present fears are less than horrible imaginings’ – Macbeth, William Shakespeare
Al makes great use of quotes in these books. All the chapters start with an inspirational, interesting and often literary message. You get a real sense of another benefit of Al’s ride which was, as he put it, getting to read hundreds of books during his hours of solitude at his private campsites, dotted all over the world.
‘Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go’ – TS Eliot
‘to those who knocked me back, thanks for fuelling the fire’.
This sentence hit me right between the eyes. It is a fact of life that people will often tell you that something isn’t sensible, isn’t realistic, or isn’t possible. Humans are naturally risk averse. And people will often think they’re doing you a favour my critiquing your plans. The thing is, if something is worth doing, if it is outrageous or if it attracts attention then it is undoubtedly going to receive criticism from certain quarters.
I have three personal strategies for criticism : 1) listen to what people say to see what you can learn from it, 2) take HUGE motivation from proving people wrong, 3) think ‘what a load of rubbish’ and ignore them.
I think Al’s message is much simpler: use it to fuel the fire.
‘Choose your road. Ride it well.’
I don’t think I’m alone in interpreting messages that I read in books and assessing them through the lens of my own life.
The fantastic thing about these two books is that the road is a simple and accessible metaphor for the rest of us in our own personal challenges. As a recent corporate escapee I took from the books things which validate my choices in life: Al turned down a good job to cycle around the world, he is a living call to arms for an adventurous lifestyle based on spending your time doing things you’re passionate about.
He points out the irony of how he swapped one potential routine (a 9-to-5 desk job) for another (cycling around the world every day). But what a routine he chose!
You can go your own way
The main message I took from Al’s story is that it’s about choice. You can chose. You can do whatever you want. Don’t be trapped by the limitations of other people’s dogma. Make your own rules.
If Al can cycle around the world by himself then you can definitely achieve the personal (and potentially modest) dreams that you’re currently thinking about but haven’t started turning into a reality.
A call to arms
It’s worth stressing that this isn’t just a travel or adventure book. It’s a call to arms for anyone who dreams and who experiences very human insecurities, doubts and fears about fulfilling those dreams.
The great thing about adventure, and one of the reasons why Escape the City is interested in adventure as well as being a place for young professionals to find their calling or their vocation, is that you don’t have to be an adventurer (or feel obliged to copy them) to be moved by these stories or to be inspired in your own personal context.
Adventures, like life, are about setting goals and then working to achieve them. These two books are a call to arms for anyone who has woken up one morning (like I did) to find themselves sleepwalking their way through their lives without actively being in control of their route.
Who should read these books?
- If you want a healthy dose of wanderlust, read these books.
- If you want a kick up the arse about those things that you’ve been wanting to do for ages but not quite found the motivation for, read these books.
- If you want to sit in your armchair and vicariously experience someone else’s adventure, read these books but be warned, they might get you following dreams that you didn’t realise you had!
I for one can’t wait to hear from Al at Escape the City’s launch party…
‘You are capable of so much more than you imagine. You have within your grasp virtually whatever target you set your sights on. To get there may not be easy. It may take your whole life, but if you are sufficiently determined, patient, bold and imaginative, you can reach it. If you think only in small incremental steps, you need not grow disheartened. Act only on the next tiny step ahead of you. And if even that appears too large, then figure out how to break it down smaller still. Walk on through the rain, though your dreams be tossed and blown. Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you will arrive someday.’