Sunday, 26 July 2015

Another ride to the bus discuss freedom

I wasn't expecting to ride anywhere today as rain had been predicted by the weathermen, but this morning it was fine, albeit a little cloudy. I was running a late, but not by much, and when I reached the green, Andy and I decided that another ride to the Tatsfield bus stop was all that was open to us.

There was nothing untoward about the outward journey other than a VW Golf driving on the wrong side of the road in order to overtake the car in front of it and basically heading straight for Andy and me. It was one of those moments when we found ourselves lost for words and lost for anything other than to look upon the situation with an open mouths, expressing nothing but incredulity.

"Was he deliberately aiming for us?" I asked Andy, who was equally confused.
"I don't think so, he was overtaking," he replied,  but there was an element of both shock and surprise at the situation that had briefly unfolded. Still, these things are sent to try us, we thought, as we ploughed on along the 269, past Botley Hill and down towards the bus stop.

My bike resting against a tree adjacent to Sanderstead pond.

When we reached our destination the conversation focused on freedom. We all regard, say, motorcycling and pushbike riding as offering the rider a sense of freedom and, yes, that's true; being on the open road, the wind in our hair, the freedom to stop and start whenever we wanted to and so forth, offers a great, liberated feeling that I'm sure other activities also offer. Sailing, perhaps, would be another freedom-inducing pastime, but then so is walking through the countryside, a stroll on an deserted beach, anything that takes the participant away from the stresses and strains of everyday life and offers a sense of escape from the drudgery of paying bills and going to work.

Is there such a thing as freedom of speech, freedom of expression or, indeed, freedom in general? It was at this point that we discussed those who, at face value, show the rest of us that there is such a thing as real freedom and that all you need to do is get out there. Think Mike Carter in his books Uneasy Rider and One Man and His Bike or Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in their books and films entitled Long Way Round and Long Way Down – they, with the help of the media, set out to prove that true freedom is out there (but only if you have money to burn and little in the way of responsibilities). Or, perhaps, you have responsibilities, but you also have enough money – or the wherewithal to make money, lots of money, from your freedom-inducing activities. Cue book deals and film rights.

Now, I won't moan too much about the way the media tries to fool everybody into thinking that it's possible to simply up sticks and cycle around the country or, indeed, the world, with your dog on a specially-built plinth over the rear wheel of your bicycle; OR the way it makes you think that it's possible to be cycling to work one fine morning and then deciding, on a whim, to simply ride on past the office and embark upon a six-month journey of discovery cycling around the coast of Great Britain. I've said enough about this in past posts.

Sanderstead pond in the rain, Sunday 26 July 2015
So Andy and I are sitting at the Tatsfield bus stop looking out towards the road and watching the odd Lycra monkey ride by and I suddenly realise how we're all basically prisoners, slaves, to the society that supports us and that the media's role in all this is to hoodwink us all into thinking that we are perfectly free to do whatever we want; this is, after all, a 'free' country. Or is it?

"What would happen if you were cycling to the office and just kept pedalling past?" Yes, I know, I've mentioned this quote before; it's from the back cover of Mike Carter's excellent book One Man and His Bike – and we all know that Mike didn't 'just keep pedalling past' – otherwise he'd have been sacked. He had arranged everything prior to leaving, he was earning money through writing a column for The Guardian and, well, he simply didn't exist in the same world he might have existed in IF he had simply decided en route to the office, "Oh, sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm going to cycle around the coast of Great Britain instead."

I started to think about what would really happen. Say, for example, that this morning I'd decided, on reaching the Tatsfield bus stop, that I was simply going to ride further, not go home, not go to the office tomorrow, but continue cycling east towards the coast – I don't know, Margate, Sandwich, Deal, Broadstairs, wherever I happened to end up.

Let's take it step-by-step: first the immediate practicalities and the rows and upset that would be caused when I phoned home and announced that I wouldn't be coming home for, well, a few months. "What do you mean? You've got work tomorrow! You'll get the sack! And what are you going to do for money?"

That, of course, would be the big sticking point. What WOULD I do for money? I'm already up to my eyeballs in debt, I have no disposable income whatsoever – even if I was solvent – and I'm leaving a family back home with possibly just one more pay cheque to last them the month. Except it won't last them because the moment we're paid, we're in debt and living off an overdraft that is costing us dearly in terms of interest.

Let's assume, just for the hell of it that I did think ahead – just a little bit. I bought a tent from Halfords to enable me to camp in the woods or the fields or at camp sites. Even though there's no money in the bank, I'd have a tent and that's it. Sadly, however, 'wild camping' is against the law in England so I'd either have to break the law (I would definitely break the law) or pay for campsites with money I simply don't have.

Then there's the matter of sustenance: food and drink. I reckon I could survive on an M&S sandwich (or equivalent) for lunch with, perhaps, an apple or a banana, but that's not going to be cheap – let's say a fiver. Then there's dinner. I'll need at least one hot meal a day and it won't come cheap and when there's no money, it'll have to be cheap, which means nutritionally suspect. I won't have any means of cooking myself (unless I buy a camping stove, which might prove cheaper in the long run as I can cook fresh food, which would be cheaper than eating out even in the most down at heel 'caff') but it's going to mean additional weight and who said I had the money to buy a stove? If I ate out every night (not really an option) I'd have to limit myself to a tenner per meal, meaning my daily outgoings of roughly £15 would make my monthly bill just under £500. But this figure doesn't take into account potential problems with the bike. Alright, punctures are pretty cheap to fix, thanks to Leeches, but anything else (gears, brakes, wheels) would cost money that I don't have and this would leave me scuppered early on as I couldn't afford to fix the bike, especially once the money really dries up and the phrase 'refer to bank' stares back at me from a cash machine.

So I'd need to earn money on my way around the country, which means there would be long periods of standing still, living rough in a tent and working, say, in a pub. I might, perhaps, be holed up working somewhere for a month and then a situation might exist where I'm riding one month and working the next – one month on, one month off. And who's to say what would be happening on other fronts? My family would certainly be in touch to ask where I am, when I'm returning home and how the hell are they going to survive without me there earning money? My office would be in touch either to sack me or to ask me if I was considering returning to work any time soon. All of this aggravation would be pre-occupying me to say the least, making my cycling a little tense, a little uneasy. In short, I really would be an Uneasy Rider.

And who's to say the police wouldn't be involved? Back home bills would be mounting up, the power would be cut off and let's not forget my mobile phone account. Soon I would be completely off the radar and unreachable by anybody other than those who might have an idea where I'd be heading, but there would be nobody (apart from Andy) who would hold that knowledge as the whole 'adventure' was based on a whim. Remember the line? "What would happen if you were cycling to the office [or in my case the Tatsfield bus stop] and just kept on pedalling past?"

I couldn't even go on benefits because the Government has tightened things up and while there are people out there who know how to work the system, I'm not one of them. The best I could do to survive (apart from finding somebody who knew how to work the system) would be the aforementioned 'one month on, one month off' scenario of casual labour one month followed by a month on the road, living rough in a tent, doing a spot of 'wild camping', surviving on pre-packaged sandwiches during the day and one hot evening meal using the money I've made in the pub, or cooking something on a camping stove – and what's the guarantee I'll find work at the end of my month of cycling – unless I strike some kind of deal with a national pub chain?

In short, we realised, as we finished our tea and BelVita biscuits, that there was no such thing as true freedom, that all of us (let's make that 'most of us') are shackled to something – 'responsibilities' – and limited by a lack of funds that need to be replenished in order to survive. Most of us work to live, some of us live to work, but either way, if you just walk out of the rat race you won't last for long as the practicalities of life will gate crash your party, and if you wanted to ride around the coast of Great Britain or jump on a powerful motorcycle and ride around the world in any direction, you can't simply 'pedal past the office' and keep on going... unless you have the funds and the wherewithal to simply jump off the carousel of life in full knowledge that nothing much will have changed when you eventually return to the fold.

It started to rain and it was time to mount the bikes and ride home. We packed up our stuff, jumped on our steeds and, as the rain intensified, we accepted the sad fact that nobody was truly free. In short, the vast majority of us are prisoners, confined by a lack of wealth and a sense of responsibility for others. So much for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, so much for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, so much for road movies, so much for escapism... it all comes at a price that many of us simply can't afford.

On a lighter note, the photographs accompanying this post are of Sanderstead Pond. I'd taken a shot at the Tatsfield bus stop just prior to departure, but it was over-exposed thanks to somebody back home changing the camera's settings without me knowing. By the time I reached Sanderstead the heavens had opened, but I braved the elements to take these shots, which are not over-exposed... unlike yours truly who was well and truly over-exposed to the rain, which continued for the most of the day and only brightened up around 4pm when the sun made an impromptu appearance.

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