Wednesday, 31 March 2010

In Memoriam

Linda has been worrying about her children. Hannah (31) is battling serious health problems and William (24) has just split up with his French girlfriend after six years. Although I'm not a parent myself, as an author I am able to understand that parents never really stop worrying about their offspring.

My books are my children. The way I see life and choose to express my ideas is as distinctive as my DNA so it might be argued that each of my books contains my genes. My first-born, 'Why Don't You Fly?', will be six years old in June, and I have a second, Karl Marx and Careful Driving, on the way. 'Why Don't You Fly?' is making its way out there in the unforgiving world, competing with its peers for attention on the shelves of bookshops and on the Internet. I am concerned every time the Amazon ranking drops, but the book has never failed to rally and although sales have never been spectacular there hasn't yet been any consistent downward trend. Like any doting parent I am offering as much support as I can - by attempting to attract more traffic to my website and blog, and by publicising my talks and slide shows about the ride to China.

I did four such presentations in March - to Hindlip Ladies and Age Concern Over Sixties (both in Worcester), to an Agricultural Discussion Group (at a pub in Grimley), and to a group of around 25 people at the Village Hall in Heightington. After each presentation I answered questions, sold signed copies of 'Why Don't You Fly?' and sometimes found myself unable to pack up my gear because so many delightful people wanted come up to chat and shake my hand. One member of the audience at Heightington who had read 'Why Don't You Fly?' twice announced that he felt privileged to have met its author.

I am alway thrilled when my presentations are well received but opportunities to speak to a Women's Institute or a Cycling club only occur once. If I am to achieve my ambition of abandoning the day job in the near future I will have to build up a client base conisisting of venues that I can visit year after year, inspiring a different group of people on each occasion. This means approaching more schools, colleges and universities. In the longer term, of course, I hope to achieve my ambition by writing one or more bestsellers.

I also went for a 25-mile walk and attended a performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto (soloist Joshua Bell) and the Eroica Symphony at Symphony Hall last month, but all of these events were overshadowed by the death of my father after a long illness on the 22nd at the age of 80.

On Friday 26 March the following obituary appeared in The Times:

ASTON SMITH Anthony, passed peacefully away on 22nd March 2010, at Michael Sobell House, Oxford. Much loved father of Chris, Piers, Ben and Poppy and loving grandfather. Dear husband of Julia. Good friend to his five stepchildren and their families. A great enabler who asked us to smile in his memory.

'Anthony was a great friend, a loving husband, a kind stepfather and a gentle grandfather. Along with Piers, Ben and Poppy, I am immensely privileged to have been able to call him Dad.

Even after the tragic death of our mother he never failed to find time for us. After coming home from work he’d cook our supper.

I retain fond memories of his delicious curries, never ending supply of rissoles, blackberry ice cream, vast 4-tier alcohol-laden chocolate cakes, and those exploding bottles of home-made ginger-beer. He was always available to help us with homework, and later on we would curl up on his bed and he would read us stories. I remember the different voices he used for Piglet, Roo and Eeyore; and for Gandalf, Gollum and Wormtongue.

He rearranged pieces of Mozart for our family quintet, wrote us ghost stories and built us fabulous scale models of battleships out of cardboard. For Poppy he built a scale model of the house we lived in to serve as a doll’s house.

He chased us around the garden with the watering can and introduced us to the enduring beauty of the Shropshire Hills.

Although he surely questioned the wisdom of some of our decisions he was always supportive of whatever we decided to do. When I told him that I wanted to drive Volvos, Scanias and DAFs all over Europe, he might have told me that university graduates don't become truck drivers.

Instead, he pointed out that I had spent four years studying at university in order to widen my choice of career, not restrict it, and that the very last thing my degree should do was prevent me from following the path of my choice. Those were the words of a great father. They were also the words of a wonderful human being.

It is with a sense of great loss that I refer to him in the past tense. During a short speech at a lunch held in honour of his 80th birthday, he thanked everyone present for having given him so much more than he could ever hope to give back. I speak on behalf of us, his four children, and we want to shout it from the roof tops that he gave us more than he could ever have known, that we loved him more than words can say, and that we are deeply proud to be his children.

We will miss him terribly.'

My father will be immortalised in the memories of his children and grand children and the many others whose lives he has touched and influenced.

I will smile in his memory.

Monday, 1 March 2010

16,500 miles. No support crew, no engine, and no ghost writer

I began March by tentatively embarking upon my first run since the fall and the injury sustained to my hip put me out of action on 7th January. Cycling and walking have built up my fitness but I was a little apprehensive about how I was going to feel after around eight run-free weeks.

Rose, who has has appointed herself as my personal trainer, insisted on coming with me. We ran along the river, the frost having helpfully hardened the muddy, slippery parts of the path, and then into the forest. I was wearing gloves but my hands, always the most vulnerable to the cold, were freezing.

Rose - small but deadly

It didn't take long for me to warm up, however, and the crisp air and dazzling sunshine made the running a joy. Once in the forest, Rose becomes a hunter, her ears alive to the sounds and her nose to the scents made by the wildlife inhabiting the forest. 'Nature commands all animals and the beast obeys,' wrote Jean-Jacques. 'Man receives the same impulsion, but he recognises himself as being free to acquiesce or resist; and it is above all in this consciousness of his freedom that the spirituality of his soul reveals itself.' During a circuit of around six miles that even included a sprint, Rose was consistently beastly to the local wildlife and I wondered whether life dicates consciousness (Marx) or whether consciousness dictates life (Hegel). This is a debate that will recur throughout Karl Marx and Careful Driving.

I arrived back home less exhausted than I expected. Rose reclined on the sofa listening to a phone-in on Radio Five and ruminatively licking her nether regions while I peeled off my muddy running gear, showered and got changed. Assuming that there are no ill-effects I'll add twice-weekly runs to the cycling commuting I do four times a week. I run and cycle not only to keep fit, but also because I tend to get some of my best ideas for the book when out running or cycling to work. The physical activity seems to clear the mind and the seratonin released by vigorous exercise stimulates the grey matter. Inspiration is fleeting, precious and so fragile. Like the body, the mind thrives on regular exercise.

This morning someone was talking on the radio about the determination, drive and focus necessary to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. If determination, drive and focus was all one needed to become a best-selling author then 'Why Don't You Fly?' would be somewhere near the top of the best-sellers lists. Reviews in the media and the feedback I receive from readers ( reassure me that I possess talent too. Unfortunately you also need to find a mainstream publisher prepared to invest in your talent, and I've come to the conclusion that attracting a publisher requires more than just determination, drive, focus and even talent.

Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman rode their powerful BMW motorbikes from John O'Groats to Cape Town, a 15,000 mile journey that took them twelve weeks. The BBC sent along a camera crew and made their adventure into a television series. Their ghost-written travelogue was written in about six weeks and almost instantly made it into the best-seller lists.

For the past three years I have been entertaining members of cycling clubs, the W.I., photographic societies, the National Trust, groups of businessmen, and audiences at festivals, bookshops and schools with a talk and slideshow about what it takes to cover 16,500 miles in thirteen months without an engine. My book took me eighteen months to write, and a further eighteen months, after countless rejections from agents and publishers, to get into print.

'These areas are often labelled "God-forsaken" for no better reason than that they are uninhabitable by humans, but I love deserts. Deserts are human-being-forsaken and the result is a natural perfection that is the most compelling evidence I've ever come across that perhaps, after all, there is a God out there somewhere. The constantly changing landscape of Baluchistan, from flat plains covered in shingle through rolling sand dunes to mountains, was a source of fascination. These are the last outposts of creation as it was meant to be before human interference. The silence that reigns in a desert is so overwhelming that it compels you to contemplate the nature of being and even enables you to tune in to the all but imperceptible music played by your soul, which I assure you is there but most of us are too distractied by other noises to pay any heed to it - and it is always worth listening to.' (Slide 25 of '16,500 Miles Without An Engine.')

Instead of a 1100 c. c. motorcycle engine my lungs and my legs powered me into headwinds, across deserts and up to mountain passes, and a wonderfully indomitable and reliable source of energy they proved to be. I set off without accomplice, satellite navigation or support crew. I wore out three sets of tyres, three chains, two pairs of boots and fell off the bike six times. It took a great deal of determination, drive and focus - and some of you would doubtless suggest considerable stupidity too.

'The cool mountain air of the Southern HIll Stations of Kodaikanal and Ooty provided much-needed relief from the tropical stickiness of the plains below, but only at the cost of brutal ascents to heights of over 8,000 feet. I think brute strength and physical fitness will only take you so far on this kind of journey. I spoke of my body being my engine; as well as fuel (which was excellent here in India), the engine needs a spark to the plugs. That spark was provided by passion. Passion drove me into headwinds and up to mountain passes wehn my feet were smarting, my crotch was sore, and my back was aching. When my strength and energy deserted me through illness in Pakistan and China, passion was all that drove me on. I think that everything one does in life should be motivated by passion. With suffiecient passion you can overcome any obstacle.('Slide 33 of '16,500 Miles Without An Engine.')

Last week I spoke to an audience of sixth-formers at a school in Blackpool and this evening I'll be speaking to a women's group in Worcester about my stupidity. How does it feel to trade domestic comfort and security for life as a nomad and to pare one’s life down to the bare necessities? What is it like to push at the frontiers of one’s physical and mental endurance? What is the effect upon the human spirit of struggling against hurricanes in the Gobi Desert by day and shivering alone in culverts at night? How does the agnostic westerner react to the religious fatalism of Islam and Hinduism in encounters with locals? As well as attempting to answer these questions, I speak about the importance of having a dream, about connecting with one’s passions, and about recognising and seizing opportunities.

'Isolated from the north, west and south by mighty mountain ranges, and from the east by the world's second-largest desert, Xinxiang, the westernmost and largest province of China, is one of the most inaccessible places in the world. Although I'm not religious, I felt that the sheer perfection of this scenery is a far more telling tribute to the Creator (whoever he, she or it might be) than any man-made church, mosque or temple. The only imperfection in the scene is the road, but thankfully there are no vehicles on it to break the silence, for that too is perfect as soon as I dismount and my breathing quietens and my heartbeat slows. Cycling at these altitudes was lung-heaving work because of the lack of oxygen. (Slide 43 of '16,500 Miles Without An Engine.')

After each presentation I stay for as long as necessary to answer questions, and I usually manage to sell a few signed copies of 'Why Don't You Fly?' We unrecognised, uncelebrated authors have to draw upon every drop of our determination, drive, focus - and talent - to sell our books.

Audiences seem to enjoy the presentations:

On behalf of Hagley Wives I’m writing to say a huge thank you for coming and telling us about your amazing achievement. We all had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I can fully understand the personal satisfaction that you gained from your trip. I am very much looking forward to reading your book and seeing the pictures on your website. It was hard to believe that that relatively small bicycle had taken you across so many miles. If ever you do another journey, please let us know and we’ll have you back in Hagley to share it with us. Again, many many thanks for your visit. Ann Pagett (Programme Secretary)

Readers and reviewers alike have been enthused by the book:

Chris Smith seems to be a man of considerable talent. I lived every mile of his journey to Beijing, which included a four-month side trip around India. By the end I felt that I’d done the trip with him and enjoyed every inch. Buy this book! It’s a great read. Cycle Magazine

Smith’s smart, honest prose is crafted superbly and peppered with wonderful moments of drama, dialogue and real humanity. Asia and Away Magazine

For eighteen months I wrote, proof-read, edited and agonised over every word, sentence and paragraph of 'Why Don't You Fly?' myself. Tributes like the above therefore mean a great deal more to me than they would to celebrities whose memoirs are ghostwritten for them.

Celebrity memoirs guarantee sales, however, and that is all the justification the publishers need. A passion for writing, a love of the English language, determination, drive, focus and even literary talent aren't enough to earn a publishing contract because they don't guarantee sales.