in my younger years, i was particularly proud of not only my memory for people's birthdays, but for an uncanny ability of finding unique presents for those who deserved more than just a card. this seems to have been an unconscious skill, for i don't recall having to write all the important dates in a book, or indeed having to try too hard when looking for those individual presents. sadly, those days are long gone; i'd now struggle to remember what i ate for tea last sunday, let alone the date of my son-in-law's birthday. or anniversary, come to that.
the easy way of justifying this diminution of sensibilities is to put it down to a busy head. there are just so many things to remember these days; the keyboard command for switching from rgb to lab colour in photoshop for instance. or just what a swiss army triplet is on the snare drum. and that second tune on the set list for the islay jazz festival; how does that start again? perhaps i'm trying too hard for the sympathy vote and it is indeed caused by acqusition of age. after all, the older you get, the more there is to remember.
but that cannot be an empirical excuse, for a friend of mine who is a former professional cyclist with an impressive palmares, can not only remember where he finished on each stage of every tour de france he rode, but what tubs were on the bike, which selection of chainrings were made each day and by how many seconds he crossed the line ahead of his nearest rival. and this from several decades ago. the knowledge that such instant recall offers little in the way of obstruction has me now desperately trying to remember just what it was i did have for tea last sunday.
i think french teacher come cyclotourist, andrew sykes must belong to the former category, for not only did he cycle from greece to portugal during his school summer holidays, but the detail with which he relates said trip is enough to marvel at in its own right.
"It wasn't a big building, but it was beautifully delicate with large, arched windows on three of its four sides. Filling in the space above the columns of the windows and between each arch, were colourful frescos of winding green flora. Just to the left of the mosque stood a square clock tower."
this accuracy of detail is pretty much the making of along the med on a bike called reggie, for the ride itself is, from the comfort of my armchair, largely uneventful, though there is the odd escapade that likely seemed less somnolent to the author.
"The few hours of cycling that followed must have ranked as one of the most uncomfortable, at times terrifying, experiences of my life. My eyes were being torn in four directions. The tourist in me wanted to look at the pretty scenery, the oddities, the animals and the people. The bike owner and chiropractor in me wanted to keep my eyes firmly on the roads, watching out for the next pothole, crevice, gap, lump or large patch of gravel."
so what is the primary purpose of books such as the current issue from mr sykes, or his previous tome crossing europe on a bike called reggie? are we meant to be impressed that he cycled a total of 5,665km, that his average speed was 19.5km or that in the process of incurring these numbers, he burned 185,496 calories? i know i am. or should we note the great attention to detail as he cycled through several different countries in order to arrive back in the uk in time to resume his teaching duties? yes, to be quite frank, that's quite impressive too. or maybe it's that andrew sykes wrote all this in an impressively laconic and oft-times humorous style for our own entertainment. in fact, he even self-published the book.
in point of fact, it is a combination of all the above. though i am under no illusions as to my own lack of wanderlust, i am inclined to satisfy this lack by proxy, revelling in pretty much every word, paragraph and chapter of along the med. in common with many others, i'd never have the time, or the money to follow in his tyre tracks, but having previously reviewed andrew's first book, i found much to compare with the work of authors bill bryson, tim moore, george mahood and others, all of whom have an uncanny knack of describing things in a way that is a lot more entertaining than any of my own brief efforts at cycle travel in these particular black and yellow pixels.
even in moments of underwhelming bravado, sykes is able to bring out the humour, albeit humour that may have surfaced after the fact. finding himself with cycling-induced back pain, a place in which all of us have found ourselves at one time or another, even if ours was in a location less exotic than croatia, there is need of some respite and relief.
"The road was flat and again good quality, which made me wonder why the pain in my lower back had returned [...] Whatever the reason, I needed some pain relief and it came in the form of a bus shelter. [...] I couldn't see a bus coming... so I lay down and immediately felt the relief of my back being flattened by the concrete floor. [...] I wondered why anyone would go to the expense of hiring a masseur when all they needed was a concrete bus shelter."
i cannot deny that there is a considerable amount of reading in this book; small print allied to almost four hundred pages is not the sort of material despatched in a couple of evenings. add to that a level of enjoyment not always found in travel books of any genre, and truly, i felt no hurry to reach page 395 by way of speed reading, something i'm inclined to resort to when there are more than just a few books queuing in the review pile.
perhaps you're unlikely to follow andrew's precise route or itinerary. maybe an odd section here or there would prove ideal. in which case, here is your guidebook. for everyone else, this is sheer entertainment.
sunday 31 august 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................