When we did get back in touch a few years later, she'd married someone else, and I was eviscerated. Insanely jealous, I spent a few months feeling extremely sorry for myself. And this is my point: right then, fifteen years ago, I was living a 'normal' life of work, debt, car, house, and all the attendant material ambition. Nowadays, with a free, untethered, nomadic lifestyle, I couldn't be happier for her. She seems to be married to a great guy and they have a beautiful daughter together. My shockingly non-pornographic dream was strangely platonic: we were knocking around in a bright orange VW Beetle, for some reason, doing essentially what I do on the bike, travelling around and looking at stuff. There was no romance, we were just having fun hanging out. And that's when I joined the dots: I was finally letting go of childish things.
Jealousy accompanies the concept of property, this invention of agricultural society absent during the Paleolithic. When we covet things, rather than experiences, we get all bent out of shape if we fall behind in the rat race. And the jealous person sees their partner as their property, which is, of course, ludicrous, unless we're back doing the slavery lark.
Agricultural society reduces people to things: we see each other more as resources to exploit, rather than individuals with thoughts and emotions of their own. We've personally adopted the dehumanizing view of the military-industrial complex. So when someone else has a thing, we want it too.
So, interpersonal jealously is a product of thinking of people as property, but obviously, I no longer think this way. And it's difficult to describe the revelatory nature of this realization. I've finally grown up. And it's got nothing to do with equity or mortgages: it's to do with feeling equanimity, not just acting with it. I don't mean I've suddenly lost my irreverence.
Pursuant to this idea: a recent trip into the hinterland of Montenegro profoundly affected me. For the first time in my life I encountered people who were truly happy, and not because they had the latest BMW or iPhone, but because they were surrounded by friends and family, living with the kind of mountain views that peripheralize commercial entertainment. This small highland village, tucked high away at the head of a deep river valley, subsisted primarily on a barter economy, farming narrow terraced fields etched into the slopes and hunting for boar, deer, and rabbit in the woods. They shared their excellent homemade vranac wine and rakia, a booming right hook of local brandy. They didn't give a damn who was in charge in the capital Podgorica, because whomever was didn't matter. It didn't affect them, their lives didn't change.
I was there to write a brochure for a travel company, and I'd never heard of the country, primarily because Montenegro didn't exist until 2006, when it gained independence from Serbia. When the client first contacted me I thought it was probably a principality in the Italian Alps. It didn't occur to me it was in the Balkans, sandwiched between Croatia and Albania on the rugged Adriatic coast. The buzzword 'Balkans' brought to mind images of hunched figures in shawls shuffling through bombed rubble, but a quick Google image search eradicated this prejudice: Montenegro has to be one of the prettiest countries in the world, with people to match. I've never so much beauty so casually strewn about. Before I get too Elves, Mr. Frodo!, I have to say they certainly don't seem to age as gracefully as our pointy-eared brethren: perhaps it's the combination of Mediterranean sun, cheap booze, and cigarettes so incredibly inexpensive it's almost criminal not to buy any.
During the Montenegro project, I chose a tentative title for the sequel to Wanderer. Warrior. Chronicler. Twit. It was after a poignant encounter on a guided kayak trip down the river Crnojevića with two Americans: an adventure travel company entrepreneur from Oregon scoping out the competition and picking up tips, and a travel writer for the New York Times. I took the opportunity to paddle with the latter for a while, and pick his brain about writing technique. The British guide, who I'd befriended some weeks earlier, asked me how it went a few moments later. 'Now that's a proper writer,' I replied, in not a little awe, 'I'm just some twat with a laptop.'
It struck me immediately what a great book title Some Twat with a Laptop would make, but there is, of course, the problem of profanity. Apparently, some people are so weak they get offended by certain noises we make, and especially their scribbled representations. Of course, the word 'twat' is far more likely to cause offence in the US than in any other English-speaking nation, largely, I suspect, because we have a greater share of whining ninnies than anywhere else. While my more delicate American readers arm themselves with invective and prepare to hose down my Twitter account with their own venomous misery (Marc Maron, the American comedian, hilariously labelled negative internet commenters 'unfuckable hate nerds'): the USA is the easiest country in the world in which to live, and I did spend almost twenty years there. Nowhere else supports such healthy business competition, which services the population with matchless ease and proliferation (unless the service is medical or educational in nature, then we can go fuck ourselves). The problem is amenity is the anathema of toughness. One doesn't become hardened by cocooning oneself in convenience, so it might be an idea to stop pretending it does. I see right through all this swaggering John Wayne bullshit.
I've considered altering the title from 'twat' to 'twit' because, at the end of the day, book shops, online or off, aren't going to push a book with a title that offends people, no matter how ridiculous this seems to the worldlier perspective of a road monkey. Having said that, publishing is many months off, so times may change, and so might I.
'I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle and habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house...' - Robert Louis Stevenson
I rode into Market Rasen, had a quick look around the cobbled town centre market, and then spent the afternoon in the Aston Arms having an illuminating conversation with a retired welder, who'd spent the majority of his life in the Middle East working in the oil industry. He revealed a thoughtfully egalitarian attitude towards Islam which contrasted starkly with the biased rhetoric I'd heard from returning soldiers.
England were playing Italy that night in their opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so I decided to camp at the Market Rasen Racecourse Caravan Park so I could watch the game over their WiFi, or maybe leave my gear there to go and catch it in a pub. Kick off wasn't until 11pm, though, as the quadrennial tournament was being staged in Brazil, and the campsite manager told me all the local pubs would be closed. Fortunately, they were showing it in their campsite function room, and were putting on some gratis finger food and such for the event. What a nice man. He even lent me a caravan electricity hook-up cable so I could plug in.
I set up camp and rode trailer-free to the nearby Tesco, where I stocked up on beer, wine, cheese, pickled onions and ice, then spent the evening back at the campsite reading, writing, people-watching, and getting pleasantly drunk.
Midsummer days are tremendously long in the UK, stretching from first light at around 3.30am until twilight well after 10, so the sun had just set when I wandered over to the function room. It was packed with caravanners; I think I was the only tent person on the site. There was a weekend antiques fair being held at the racecourse next door, which meant many of the folks staying at the site were dealers.
My overriding archetype of an antiques dealer had been a quietly aloof tweed-suited gentleman, perhaps towing a prim wife. So I was quite taken aback to discover they are, by and large, rampant criminals. They may look all church fete and coffee morning, but neck tattoos simmer just below the surface; a lot more Bill Sikes than Mr. Brownlow. As such, the humour was suitably broad for my ribald tastes, and I had a grand old time, even winning the £17 sweepstake by picking the first goalscorer.
Discovering a living example of a stereotype actually surprises me more than its contrary. Our eagerness to pigeonhole people into manageable groups is a well-documented psychological phenomenon, as our brains didn't evolve to deal with more than a few interconnected Paleolithic families. In this crowded world of ours, whenever we meet new people, we immediately start to 'figure them out', by asking questions about their ancestry, habits, and family origin, so we can superimpose our learned latticework of stereotypes and enable predictors of likely behaviour. I find it immensely entertaining when people apply this process to me, so I can experiment with different reactions to what information I reveal. The monumental difference between announcing I'm a roofer, for example, rather than a writer, demonstrates the class system hasn't gone anywhere, it's just slightly buried.
I stayed at the campsite for a couple more days to eradicate my hangover and wait out some rain, then headed for the historic city of Lincoln. The Wolds flattened and a following breeze propelled me down attractive country lanes, dappled by patchy sunlight, bringing on that unencumbered joy unique to cycle touring.
To be honest, I was a little disappointed by Lincoln. The cathedral is truly a wonder--the central spire made it the tallest building in the world for 238 years until the thing blew over during a storm in 1549--and the castle, home to one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta, is castley enough. But the rest of the city, outside its small medieval centre, pales in comparison to that other powerhouse for the history whore, York.
I Stopped at a Morrisons to buy hot dogs for dinner, and a tin of curry for tomorrow, and camped in a field of another disused railway track bridleway. I watched a couple of episodes of the excellent new series of Cosmos, presented by Neil Degrasse Tyson, and realized they'd filmed one at Isaac Newton's home less than a day's ride away. Holy shit!
I had no real plans apart from a vague route to Snowdonia, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I could not pass up. I quickly calculated a route and sat back, trembling a little. Isaac fucking Newton. The father of modern science.
Now this was going to be something.