Penning a book review is a bit of a novelty for me. Not since English classes at school have I had to undertake any form of literary criticism. I’ve always felt slightly awkward at the thought of putting crayon to paper and taking apart the product of someone’s blood, sweat and tears. I can almost see the recipient of a harsh review spitting feathers and asking what the hell the critic has ever done of merit. Having said that, there are of course exceptions. Fifty shades of utter tripe anyone? Fortunately, in One Man and his Bike, regular Guardian contributor Mike Carter has produced a book that is a genuine pleasure to read.
The books premise is simple. As a single, middle aged man with no family commitments, our author decided that he needed a change in his life. Despite having bought a ticket to take off for Argentina, a desire to feel a sense of belonging prompted him to ponder what would happen if instead of just commuting to work, he kept riding all the way round the coast of Britain. What follows is a beautifully written and charming grown up boys own adventure as Mike meets all manner of people on his journey and demonstrates with relaxed ease just how diverse and fascinating a place the UK is.
I’m always somewhat cynical when it comes to reviews that describe books as laugh out loud funny. I’ve read more books than I care to remember that have come lavished with such praise but have failed to deliver. One Man and His Bike is an exception. As a devotee of the Church of Wittertainment, services held every Friday 2pm to 4pm on BBC Radio 5 Live courtesy of Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film review show, I subscribe to the’ six laughs test’. Six laughs and it gets the nod as being funny. Within a matter of a couple of chapters, this test had been passed as I found myself increasingly drawn into Mike’s journey.
Focusing less on the traditional travelogue fayre of lengthy description of scenery and history and more on the people he met, I couldn’t help but identify with Mike and the connections he was making. It’s easy to be critical of our nation. Too much crime; not enough generosity of spirit and kindness; headlines that speak daily of crisis and hopelessness. However, the book feels like an invigorating blast of fresh air and antidote to the naysayers. Several elements stood out for me. From his sojourn in Whitby where we learn that the connection with Bram Stoker’s Dracula have made it something of a Disneyland for Goths; his stays with the Bishop of Walshingham and on Holy Isle, meeting Blackpool’s Queen of Drag through to the Do Lectures and quite possibly the World’s most adventurous ferryman. All encounters were conveyed with a genuine sense of affection and more than a little degree of humour. As the chapters flew by, I found myself completely drawn into the narrative, eager to answer the question of what happened next. Reading it while on holiday was a challenge as I found myself torn between riding my bike and finishing a chapter. More often than not, the book won.
One thing I was not expecting as I sped through the chapters was to find so much that chimed with my own life and attitude to bike riding. His encounter with ferryman Stevie Smith being perhaps the epitome of this. Leaving behind a job with the OECD, Steve set out with his friend Jason to be the first to circumnavigate the world using nothing but human power only to return to what would prove to be his dream job of a ferryman across a 300 metre stretch of water. When Mike asks him as to how he was able to make such an enormous transition from global adventurer, his response is both brilliantly simple and profound. “If you want to be happy, then you must enjoy it all, at whatever point you are at, from the beginning to the end. Because ultimately happiness is the acceptance of the journey as it is now, not the promise of the other shore.” If ever there was an explanation of why I have no interest in racing and just love riding my bike, this is it.
Perhaps my stand out moment from the book is Mike’s encounter with a fellow touring cyclist who proceeds to tell Mike how everything he is doing is wrong. I won’t spoil the punchline but it had me in a fit of giggles. Criticism? I have only one and that is the book ended too soon for me. As of yet, Mike Carter hasn’t published any kind of follow up which is a great pity. I have had to console myself by re-reading it more than once. Coupled with my own trips to several of the places described since first reading it, it’s fair to say that it would be on my Desert Island Discs list, albeit with none of the music and more of the reading. Do yourself a favour and search out a copy.