I rode my bike today. It was sunny. That isn’t what I’m going to write about.
Before the book came out I had a few chats with close friends. We drank beers in the park during lockdown and at some point they’d ask “how’s the book going” and I’d reply, “it’s good, but I think people might be surprised how personal it is.” Since it came out, this element of the book has gradually moved forwards, as people recognise perhaps that it has some bits in there that defy the conventional characterisation of cycling “literature”. I don’t want to over-egg it, but it’s there I think, and it has cropped up in reviews. The best ones, from my perspective, are the ones that comment on how this book has (4?) different strands running through it, crossing a lot of time and different people, but somehow bringing it all together. I say ‘best ones’, when what I mean is the most flattering.
Early on, Graham Robb in the Spectator used the phrase ‘PTSD’ in and amongst a broad and lovely review, and I read this on the day of publication, and as much as I loved the review, I was blindsided a little by how simply he referred to this, the facility with which he deemed something in the book as PTSD. And as I sat there, in bed that morning, waiting for all the reviews to drop in and not knowing that this would be the only one for a long time, I remembered that this thing that happened was pretty traumatic and not only that, it haunted me for a long time and still does today. I can’t comment on other people’s experiences, only my own, but I know that there was an evening in my life when something horrible and violent happened to me and it shook my faith in people to the core. In many ways, my life has been a long struggle to cope with this since January 16th, 1995. I can’t write anymore now in terms of details (not enough words) but I can say that it did weird things, like it taught me unhelpful lessons and filled my head with degenerative aphorisms like, ‘life can be bad but it is never that bad, so everyone else can jog on’. The other thing I’ve recognised is that I internalised a huge amount of horridness, both things that happened at the time, and also the things that happened afterwards, and I carried/carry this around with me in my head. I sometimes wonder if maybe the event itself some realigned a few things in my brain, as though the wires were torn out forcibly, then put back in the wrong places before being switched on. A bit like how when you drop an old analogue telly and from that point on there’s something not quite right about the picture and the colour.
I think there are elements of an epiphany here too. I’ve recognised (there’s no point in saying ‘belatedly’) that what happened to me, the shocking physical violence, and then the emotional violence of the fallout, both to me, and the people closest to me, is not something I need to hide. For sure, it’s not something I need to tell people about on a first meeting, “oh by the way this thing happened to me and it was super unpleasant, insofar as at one point I thought I’d pissed myself and I was relieved I hadn’t until I realised it was blood running down my leg where I’d been stabbed”, or likewise, “sorry about all those really bad choices for at least ten years” but it isn’t something I need to conceal, and hiding it, or simply pretending that it didn’t happen, isn’t helpful either. But the biggest thing is a broader sense that events like this shape our lives forever. Not in passing, not in ‘measured hundredweight and penny pound’, but in an ever changing relationship with both the event and crucially, the person it turned me into, because the other thing is, I wasn’t the same person before this happened. It changed my life, spectacularly. It did some amazing things. I know I wouldn’t be writing this, have written this book, for sure and wouldn’t change that. But I know also I wouldn’t have spent time in hospital in Exeter, have disappeared for days, lost my mind, and would I change that? Actually I would. I would rather that didn’t happen to me. I would rather I hadn’t spent an entire morning crying uncontrollably in a foyer in a mental health ward until the charge nurse came and helped me out of an abyss of anxiety and despair. Would I have walked out on a fairly successful career if my criteria for acceptable levels of stress hadn’t been rearranged, existentially, by a thing that happened in a 4 hour time span, 26 years ago? I don’t know. Here’s a strange quirk though, every time someone holds a knife in a certain way, or passes a knife, or says something about how a knife is sharp, I always think, in a flickering, philosophical, triggery way, “yes I know this…” or “Yes I know it’s dangerous to hold a knife like that…” as I am transported back and then forwards again in a momentary interruption to time. This is what living with something like this feels like. In many ways, it feels like other things, like grief, like suddenly being transported by the memory of someone, tripped into life by a sound or smell. But it it also feels more arbitrary, because it isn’t something that was supposed to happen. What happened to me is something that happens in claustrophobic screen-time, not real life.
So it goes. I think in many ways all of this [belatedly] culminated in a few things as it rippled outwards through time, and this is what features in the book, the ripples. I just wrote it, and it was how I happened to be feeling at that time. I think I had perhaps given up on hiding this thing, to a degree. I became open – open like a drawer of knives. Sometimes I feel a bit awkward that a book about amazing people became a book about my struggles, but again, at my best, I think it taps into so many of the essential themes that I’m trying to talk about and what life is like. I think, also, there’s another book there, but I don’t know whether I’m brave enough to write it and don’t know if it’s a novel or a some sort of navel-gazing non fiction. Incidentally, there are some brilliant memoirs doing the rounds at the moment, and if I had to endorse one, unambiguously, it would be “Broken Greek” by Pete Paphides.
The review that prompted all of this is from John Maingay. There are a couple of lines in there that made me think quite a lot. (Plus I’m always pleased when people get a literary allusion or reference ((Kolley Kibber!)) and there are a lot in this book). The process is a bit narcissistic, I’m ok with that, someone wrote something about my book and it made me think about myself. But everyone else can jog on (only joking), it’s a really super review, for all sorts of reasons. Here are a few: it isn’t about the reviewer; it uses the word ‘magnificent’; he’s actually read the book; the review is really well crafted (this is a bugbear of mine, the worst reviews are always appallingly written) and it’s a really intelligent, thoughtful, kind piece of writing on its own.
Lastly, it’s by one of the four regular readers of this page.