Author Archives: alastair

Go Somewhere New

Hands up if you've heard of Muckle Flugga!
To eliminate show-offs, could you also place St. Agnes, Soay or Ness Point on the map?

I certainly could not have managed this until recently, yet they are all in our country. They are the north, south, east and west extremes* of Great Britain**.

I always encourage people to cycle from Land's End to John O'Groats at some point in their lives to get a better understanding of the place we live in. Nick Hand went one step further in his exploration, cycling a full lap of Great Britain.

But even he didn't make it to the poetic-sounding Muckle Flugga. Our country is full of beautiful, surprising places and we should make the most of these long, lingering summer days to go somewhere we have never been. You don't even need to go far to do this: I bet there is somewhere interesting within 15 miles of your house that you have never been to.

I'm feeling particularly fervent about this at the moment. Here's why...

Years ago I stood at John O'Groats, tired but jubilant, and gazed out to sea (or, more accurately, into the fog). I had conquered Britain by bike and I could go no further.

I was wrong.

For last week I was in the Shetland Isles, more than 100 miles further north than "J O'G". This time, as I stood outside my tent in the soft solstice midnight light I looked at the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga and the tiny islet of Out Stack, I was at the top of Britain. And I realised that only now was I beginning to realise how little I know of my own country.

My tent was pitched on a patch of flat green grass like a billiard table. A metre away from the door was the cliff edge, swirling with puffins and scores of other seabirds swirling above the crashing turquoise waves far below. Not only was it one of the best camping spots I have enjoyed in Britain, it was one of the best in the world. You don't need much time or money or expertise to experience a night's camping like that. You just need to go do it.

I have not yet been to St. Agnes, Soay, Ness Point, Rockall, or any number of other super places. But I certainly will do. It's a lifetime's work to know your own country, and there's no better time to start than right now.

* - pedant alert: I have not included the Channel Islands because they are Crown Dependencies, not constituent parts of the United Kingdom and Rockall is not internationally recognised. There are a couple of other pedantic details too, but summer is not the time to be discussing stuff like this!
** - apologies to Scottish, Welsh, Shetland and Scillian separatists!

Book List

Here's a book list for all the bums out there. For the vagabonds and hobos. For the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles - exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

These are the travel books I read and re-read. I fold down corners and scribble notes. They remind me that, above everything else, the things that make me happiest in life are big skies, sunsets, sleeping on beaches, the potential of the open road, and the random exciting strangers you meet along that road.

Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck

Steinbeck travels round America with his dog, Charley.

“When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult."

Also in this book is a paragraph I often think I'd like to have on my gravestone:

“For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment.”

Walden, or Life in the Woods - Henry David Thoreau
Over-read, over-worshipped and quite boring in parts. But the essence of it resonates loudly: a simple life, in tune with nature and with few possessions, is often a happy and rewarding one.

"I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life..." and "The prospect of what is euphemistically termed “settling down”, like mud to the bottom of a pond, might perhaps be faced when it became inevitable, but not yet awhile."

I also like his assertion that "What old people say you cannot do - try - and find that you can."

Roughing It - Mark Twain

Huckleberry Finn should feature in any list like this, but it's so obvious that instead I've picked this lesser-known gem from Twain. You can read the book online here.

"It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science."

On the Road - Jack Kerouac

I first read this book in San Francisco where I was bewitched by a hippy girl with long dreadlocks and shining eyes. I also had to pause a few weeks to watch a crunch football match on TV. It ended badly (the football match): Leeds were relegated. But hey, “I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night”. And I had discovered an author who, although mad and quite annoying at times, really managed to capture the zinging love for life of all good wandering souls, the mad ones I plagiarised in the opening paragraph.

"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies." And what more do we yearn for but "a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road"?

Dharma Bums - Jack Kerouac

Kerouac gets two mentions in this piece as I conceived the idea for it whilst reading Dharma Bums in a drab business-hotel on an overnight stay to give a lecture. The grim irony was not lost on me. Kerouac's fictional hero heads into the wild for a simple life and to find himself. I'm not struck on the religiose Buddhist side to the book but I love the young man heading up Matterhorn mountain, discovering the thrill of sleeping on mountains, drinking from ice cold creeks and turning his back on "middle class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness".

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee

I don't know how often I have eulogised this book. I do know that it's my favourite piece of travel writing. Young man + violin, busking and walking his way across Spain. Cheap wine, dark-eyed girls, and sleeping under the stars. The life of a happy vagabond.

“It was for this I had come: to look out on a world for which I had no words; to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still held no memories for me.”

A Time of Gifts - Patrick Leigh Fermor

Travelling on foot, sleeping in hayricks and castles "like a tramp, a pilgrim, or a wandering scholar", Paddy Fermor's walk across Europe inspired me to try to combine the life of a wandering hobo with also using my brain and retaining my curiosity. He was expelled from school and I have long-loved a phrase from his school report that makes for a wonderful epitaph to work towards: "he is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness".

The Happiest Man in the World - Poppa Neutrino

So bonkers was Poppa's life that I felt sure I was reading a work of fiction until I checked him out on Google. Anyone who sails the Atlantic Ocean on a raft made of junk and also manages an obituary in the New York Times (link) is clearly a fascinating person.

From that piece: "A lifelong wanderer, he developed a philosophy that emphasized freedom, joy, creativity and antimaterialism, a creed expressed in the rafts he built from discarded materials."

The Gentle Art of Tramping - Stephen Graham

The post I wrote about this book on my own blog (link) recently clearly struck a chord - it was my most viewed post of the year. Dating back to 1927 it is a fabulous How-To guide to becoming a wanderer, a vagrant, a hobo.A brilliant addition to any vagabond’s library.

A couple of snippets for you:

• The less you carry the more you will see, the less you spend the more you will experience.
• In tramping you are not earning a living, but earning a happiness.

Hopping Freight Trains in America - Duffy Littlejohn

I’ve always dreamed of hopping onto a freight train in America, rumbling thousands of miles from coast to coast, reading Kerouac and Huck Finn, hiding from cartoonish guards and learning the ropes from vagabonds.
This is a how-to book for dreamers. I don't suppose now I actually will hop a train: the post-9/11 world makes it even harder than ever. So I suppose I'll have to live with this stinging rebuke, “Sure, you can pay Amtrak to haul you across the country with a bunch of blue-haired old ladies. Or you can grow some balls and hop a train.”

The Way of the World - Nicolas Bouvier

The tale of two young Swiss men who take to the road, driving east to Afghanistan in the 1950s. They fund their search for new experiences by writing articles and painting. A beautifully written book. "Traveling outgrows it's motives. It soon proves sufficient in itself. You think you are making a trip, but soon it is making you - or unmaking you." "We denied ourselves every luxury except one, that of being slow."

The book's epigraph is an apt conclusion for this entire list of books, "I shall be gone and live, or stay and die."

Polar Books

Polar Bear Number Plate

I woke up cold this morning and consequently feeling a bit sorry for myself. But before I had even emerged from beneath my duvet I realised how feeble I was being. I was under a duvet, inside a house, in balmy England. And so, with my mid-morning tea, I sat down with a sublime book to remind myself what cold was really like. Opening 'The Worst Journey in the World' completely at random I also reminded myself how brilliant the best polar books are and why I am desperate to see Antarctica for myself.

So here, to while away the last of the long cold evenings until spring springs, is a reading list of some of my favourite polar books. No more whinging under the duvet allowed! Read one of these masterpieces and be inspired to get out and enjoy the beautiful cold, frosty days...

  1. The Worst Journey in the World - Apsley Cherry Garrard
  2. The Birthday Boys - Beryl Bainbridge
  3. Mawson's Will - Lennard Bickel
  4. South: the Endurance Expedition - Ernest Shackleton
  5. Ninety Degrees North - Fergus Fleming
  6. Scott of the Antarctic - David Crane
  7. Philospohy for Polar Explorers - Erling Kagge
  8. Mind Over Matter - Ranulph Fiennes
  9. South - Chris Orsman

And finally here's a little video to remind you that your house isn't that cold!

You know the saying: “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” Quite clever, whoever coined it. Bit of an annoying naff-orism now.

Sometimes though we need to do it the other way round. We need to live our T-shirts.

Let me explain.

I sometimes wear a T-shirt which says “TIME NOT CASH”. I like it.

T-shirts are a nice way of preaching, of pushing the dogma you have chosen to live by. It’s ramming your beliefs down people’s throats, but in a gentle, non-confrontational, stylish way.

“Money is not the most important thing in the world,” I am saying to the world. “But time is. Time is gold to me. Give me more time to do good stuff, to have fun, to laugh with friends, to read good books, to ride my bike. And, above all, do not waste my time doing unimportant stuff.”

But, in rare lucid moments of frustration, I realise that this is not what I’m actually doing with my life.

I am one of the too-few lucky people in the world who earns enough money to pay my taxes, buy enough food, and have a roof over my head. If you have seen me in my T-shirt you would therefore think I have everything I could want. And I do. So why then do I catch myself sitting through sunset after sunset at my desk, working, working, working to earn more and more money?

It is very easy to wear very idealistic T-shirts, to have wonderful statements of intent emblazoned across our hearts. But it is far more difficult to actually live by these mantras, to pursue an uncluttered life focused on the stuff that really counts.

So I’m going to finish this post now. I’m going to make myself a cup of tea. I’m going to go and sit outside under a tree and stare at the clouds for ten minutes. And if I catch myself fretting that that is ten minutes wasted, ten minutes of work down the drain, then I’m going to punch myself!

Time not cash. It’s not a t-shirt slogan. It’s a manifesto for life.

What does it say on your t-shirt?

jump in a cold river

When people ask what my job is, I never know how to respond. I go on journeys and set myself challenges. I write - for books, for magazines, for blogs. I give talks and take photographs. But none of these actually feel like a "job". And for that I am a lucky man. Do what you love, a wise man once said, and you will never work a day all your life.

It didn't start out as a career plan though. I was too short-sighted for one of those. I was too much of an angry-young-man, too frustrated at the golden cage of my nice, easy, dull life, too anxious to chase all the adventures and lessons that were waiting out there if only I would make the effort to begin chasing. I started chasing. I chased hard. I spent over four years cycling a lap of the planet.

Cycling round the world changed the direction of my life forever. For it clarified for me what I really love and care about, the things that make me come alive: it taught me that they are attainable (or might possibly become attainable) if only you summon up the nerve and the energy to take the first step towards them. You might not even know what they are. You might not end up where you thought you were going to go. But, fingers crossed, you'll end up in a good place. This excites me a lot and it's what I'm going to occasionally write about here on the howies blog. (Which, in itself, is an example of the weird and wonderful paths life can take - that someone very un-cool like me ends up getting to write for such a cool lot as howies)

But it's not all sunshine, rainbows, "chasing your dreams" and "being the best you can be". After spending over six years overseas, travelling, and being in the world's wild places I often feel trapped and bored as I try to balance my wanderlust and ambition with a desire for "normality": for friends, family, community, and stabilty. I listen to The Smiths more than is healthy. So I'm also going to write about the small but really significant little things that re-spark the soul in the course of a normal working week: the whooping mountain bike rides on frosty mornings, the great books that teach you as much as travel ever can, and the microadventures that service all the same needs as massive expeditions but in a fraction of the time. And rivers. Jumping into rivers. Yes, mostly I'll be writing about the uncontrollable whooping and grin that comes from leaping into a cold, clear river. However cold the water, however heavy your work woes, you will always feel better after a dip in a river, lake or ocean. Indeed, if I can persuade just one reader to go for a wild winter swim then I'll definitely have done my job.

At last, I know what my job is...

Alastair Humphreys
(Find out more about me and my adventures here)

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