Tuesday, 23 November 2010


'The Poetry is in the Pity' (Wilfed Owen)

I was watching a DVD recently of the glorious Blackadder Fourth series and the final
scene was for me, one of the best comedy sketches ever written. As Captain Blackadder's many hilarious attempts to get out of the war by faking madness fails, the realisation finally dawns on him and his men that there is no way of getting out of the trenches. The whistle blows and as they go over the top in a barrage of gunfire, they morph into fields of blood-red poppies.

This most moving of scenes and using comedy to depict the senseless slaughter can be an effective way to bring home the madness of war. The war artists and poets at that time also used different and ground breaking methods to interpret the futile carnage.

My theme for this trip is art and artists of each country that I travel through and my first stop after leaving England will be the small town of Ypres in Belgium. A place of significance in World War One, as this was where the war became industrialised with the first use of gas. The invasion was stopped in its tracks in Ypres, culminating in slaughter on an unprecendented scale. Thousands died for a few hundred yards of ground, only to lose it again a few days later.

As with all wars, the government created official war artists to portray the propoganda. In earlier times, painting had depicted the glory, nationalism and heroics of the battlefield but a small band of exciting, influential artists from the legendary , London Slade School of Art, such as Paul Nash, Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson and Stanley Spenser, used innovative techniques to interpret the war in a different way. They wanted to show us the human face of war, its pain: its waste. Here was, 'a crisis of brilliance' as the title of David Haycock's book states and they became the Futurists and Bohemians of the twentieth century.

Atmospheric landscape paintings of 'No-Mans Land' by Paul Nash for example, used his talent as a former landscape artist to develop his painting into a futuristic and mono-toned style. Not for him the blood and guts of trench warfare, instead rendering the destruction and desolation of the moonlight, cratered battlefield, using the new vortice style of painting, then fashionable with a new breed of more abstract and expressionist French artists of the time, and just as powerful. The 'Merry-Go-Round' painting by Mark Gertler was another.

In contrast to Nash, Gertler's 'The Merry-Go-Round' used, flat, bold colours in the surrealistic style. The uniformed soldiers, sailors and civilians are posed sitting stiffly upright in regimented rows, astride identical wooden horses of the merry-go-round. No horror or gory scenes here but with mouths agape in silent screams, the endless revolving door effect, 'this blaze of violent mechanical rotation'as D.H. Lawrence lauded it, illustrates the futility of trench warfare. It is one of the most potent anti war paintings of modern times.

That was the brilliance of this small band of influential and innovative group of artists, who brought home the horrors to those who wanted to glorify the war.
And none more so than one of my favourite war artists, Stanley Spenser.

I recently visited the Spenser Memorial Chapel at Burghclere near Newbury. Here is where Spenser painted one of the most iconic war memorials. Due to his religious and sensitive personality, as well as his pastoral upbringing, his war paintings, using his unique aerial viewpoint, and his familiar, distorted, cartoon-like figures, were based on the dual themes of redemption and hope by depicting the mundane, everyday life of the soldier.

I was surprised how modest and insignificant this single storey building was and being set back from the road, I nearly missed it as I drove by. Three walls in the tiny, square chapel (or the 'Holy Box'as Spenser affectionately called it) painted from floor to ceiling (Hampshire's own Sistine Chapel - Spenser)reflect his life as an orderly in the war, often painting scenes of bed changing, or collecting empty tea urns to scrubbing hospital floors. But the dominant scene is the 'Redemption' painting covering the end wall of the chapel. Strewn with piles of white, wooden crosses and with soldiers of opposing sides emerging from their graves to greet their dead comrades and laying their crossess at the feet of a diminutive Christ figure at the top of the painting, is an awe inspiring sight and absolutely breath taking. This more reflective theme for me, is more powerful than seeing images of horrific carnage. It is a truly magnificant painting.

In the way that Spenser used more innocent scenes to interpret the war, Wilfred Owen was the opposite. One of the foremost poets of WW1, he used vivid words and phrases to illustrate the horrors of the trenches. In is acclaimed poem,'Dulce et Decorum Est'he describes in graphic detail the effects of gas on a soldier who, with hands numb with cold and shaking with fear, fumbles to put on his gas mask... phrases such as....'obscene as cancer'......'if you could hear the blood come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs'...'he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning'. And then ending the poem with those immortal lines;

'My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desporate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum Est Pro patria mori'
(it is sweet and right to die for one's country)

Wilfred Owen died aged just twenty five, one week before the end of the war. According to historians, his mother received the telegram while the neighbours were partying in the street outside, celebrating the armistice.

During this most reflective of months, it was good to reunite with my love of art once more and with this being the theme of my trip, I cannot wait to get going.
It may only be November but I feel that my journey has already begun.

As my next blog will not be out until early January, I would like to wish you all a very Merry and Peaceful Christmas.


Sunday, 31 October 2010

'the times, they are a changing' (Bob Dylan)

'..You will not meet,
the Cyclops or fierce Poseidon
Unless you carry them in your soul,
Unless your soul sets them in your path.'(C.P.Cavafy)

Hurling pieces of old furniture,pots and pans and other assorted rubbish into an ever filling skip while clearing out my father's garden shed and garage recently, gave me a huge sense of satisfaction. This de-cluttering of our lives is something we have all done from time to time, especially when we move house or flat. And aren't we amazed at what has been stored up over the years!

But this de-cluttering can also apply to ourselves as people. The reasons I chose to do this trip were many:for adventure, a challenge,the joy of travel and seeing exciting new places, meeting different people and understanding different cultures;all those things, but also to change as a person. There is simply no point in doing this trip if I am not prepared to allow it to change me in some way. A trip like this should do just that. But you have to allow it to and sometimes it means breaking down some of the old barriers, built up from years of working, living and other influences, as we go about our daily lives. And already, even in preparing for this trip, I am aware of subtle changes in myself.

Being somewhat entrenched in my ways, I was going to do this journey without taking mobile phones or computers. I was intending to rely on using snail mail and internet cafes or WI FI outlets (if I could find them)in towns or cities. The rather romantic notion, where I thought the trip would perhaps be more 'real' if I didn't take any new fangled technology with me, was reinforced by telling myself that I could manage and who needs it anyway, as a convincing excuse. My love of reading also meant that I had to decide how much limited space I could give to taking any books. And if I didn't take any then how would I manage, without spending a fortune on buying books for long plane or train journeys.

Determined I was not going to give in to technology, I have just downloaded tens of free books on my recently acquired IPhone! Deciding that my Luddite ways had to go, I persuaded myself to get one. And I'm glad I did. I can now download various applications, that include, languages, directions, bookings, any internet query, email friends, send an instant photo (if I havn't got my real camera to hand)and ..Oh! the possibilities are endless!.Expensive, yes, but worth it just for my piece of mind. To be able to get all this information without the trauma of traipsing around a city or town after 50 or so miles of exhausting cycling,just to find an internet cafe or outlet, is worth every penny.

But thinking about how I may have betrayed my original ideas about how I felt with taking technology with me, I was reminded of what a good friend had said to me recently. 'It doesn't matter how you do this trip, there are no rules, it's your trip.'And she was right. I can put this journey together in any way I want to:in a way that I feel comfortable.

So already my mind is opening up to new ideas and possibilities, perhaps something that wasn't my strongest habit in the past. I have alsways been very single minded and while good in some ways, it can also make you blinkered.

What I want most out of this trip is to come home with a more open mind and different attitudes. Do we have to go around the world to do this? Probably not, but it's a great way to find out!

Bye for now


Friday, 1 October 2010

Just a Phrase I'm Going Through

Looking out the window at this claggy, October weather, where I have been stuck indoors for a few days, got me thinking about that wonderful comedy sketch of Rowan Atkinson's, where he had returned from travelling abroad to meet up with some foreign noble and his side kick, Baldrick, asks him,
'So, my Lord, were you fluent?'
To which Rowan's character replies in that familiar superior tone,
'Yes thank you Baldrick, were were both very fluent; him in his language and I in mine.'

I told myself that if I did a trip like this, I would set myself the challenge of learning some basic words and sentences of the language of each country I am travelling through, to communicate and engage with local communities. So I bought some language CD's - you know the sort - they guarentee you will be able to have a full blown, philosphical and intellectual conversation with the locals within one hour of listening to them. The sort that is built around a cheesy scenario and cringingly marketed as, 'unique, entertaining with a fun storyline.'

In this case, the storyline is about a man and a woman who meet on a plane and they get chatting. The man leans over to say hello in English and the woman suddenly decides that he needs to learn a language! And being the geeky, smarty pants that he is, he manages to chat up the air hostess in fluent Greek, or which ever country the plane happens to be going to (all the CD's follow exactly the same senario! - you just get it in a different langauge each time)as well as order three different types of wine by the glass, bottle, half bottle; ask what time it is; say he doesn't want to buy a Ferrari but does want to buy a Lamborghini (although how that would interest the air hostess, beats me) and who just happens to have sat in the seat next to a seven language, linguist who was willing to teach him all this; and all in the time it takes between fastening their seatbelts, to the plane touching down. Phew! Fast work!

Well, I'm not quite that quick, but ignoring the syrupy, holiday style backdrop, these CD's are very good. At the moment, I'm learning French, Italian, Greek and Turkish. I already know a few words of Farsi and I will spend the rest of the winter months learning one or two more holiday phrases in other languages. Phrases such as, Where are the toilets?; Where is the bus stop? Where can I park my bike? How to order a meal and most importantly for me - Where is the ATM?. I've just spent a lot of money on these CD's only to find out that the word for ATM in Greek is - ATM! Of course, it takes me far longer than the hour stated to learn all these words but I am getting there and enjoying it, and with lots of practise, my accent is improving all the time. 'A.T.M. A.T.M. A.T.M.

I have been visiting hole in the wall's a lot lately, mainly for shopping sprees for all the bits and pieces I will need. Especially for my bike. On a long ride such as this one, it's important to keep my bike up to scratch and tweaked to its optimum performance level. So I am taking 'Hughie' (the nickname for my Paul Hewitt Cheviot SE tourer) in for a complete overhaul this month to get him in shape. A visit to Paul Hewitt's shop in Preston, where I originally had the bike made for me, is a long way and quite expensive, but worth it as I know Paul's mechanics will do a good job.

Not far away from Preston, is Wigan. I have a talk to give at Wigan Photographic Society the same day, so I can take the bike in and deliver the talk all in one journey. The talks and courses are keeping me very busy and I'm travelling from one side of the country to the other but, as always, I'm enjoying every minute. So the work is going very well but my thoughts are dominated by the trip.

As Hughie is going to have an overhaul, I thought I'd better get myself sorted with a vaccination programme. I paid a visit to the doctors to get some information about the, what, when, where and how my vaccination schedule would take shape and was seen by the nurse who sat me down to discuss the details. After listing all the countries I would be going through, she then told me in that reassuring voice that only nurses have, that, yes, I would in fact need one or two.

Fourteen actually! The list reads like an inventory of ancient Greek philosophers!
Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B (x3) Rabies (x3) Tetanus, Malaria, Diphtheria, Typhoid,
Poliosomethingorother and Japanese Encephalitis.
And worse still - not a sugar lump in site! All needles. So after picking me up off the floor, she assured me that I shouldn't worry as the side effects were only, 'an aching arm, dizziness and a high temperature!'
My first vaccination starts in a weeks time, after which I will then have to go to the doctor complaining of an aching arm, dizziness and a high temperature and can I have something for it please.

Well, this October, it will be more shopping for the trip, sorting out the bike bits, more reading and research and more planning. For now though, it's back to the Greek.


Thursday, 2 September 2010


Happy September

I want to mention serendipity. As with the three princes in Horace Walpole's 'The Three Princes of Serendip', I, too, have had my fair share recently, of making fortunate discoveries by accident. Since deciding to do this trip, my emotions had flipped between sheer joy and excitement, to moments of sheer terror (usually in the small hours just before dawn). When that happens, or if I come across difficult times, I fall back on a comforting thought - something will always turn up!
One example of this serendipity was when I recently met a fellow cyclist called Astrid.

It all started with my friend's mother! Knowing about my proposed trip, she told my friend about a woman cyclist from Bristol (she couldn't remember her name) who had just given an interview about her recent round the world cycling adventure for local radio. My friend naturally told me.

'Fantastic!', I said and completely ignored it.

Some weeks later, I went to see a talk by Alistair Humphreys, who some years ago spent four years cycling round the world on his own adventure. Afterwards, I put a few questions to him and he happened to mention Astrid, a Bristol woman who had just come back from a world trip! It was quite clear this was the same woman that my friend's mother had spoken of some weeks back. So I got in touch with Astrid and we met for lunch one Sunday a couple of weeks ago.

Meeting Astrid was one of those fortunate events. Not only was she a woman of similar age to me but because she had been on such a recent cycling trip, her information was very up to date. I have read a good number of books of travel cyclists and been to see a few talks by inspiring speakers who have done the same thing, but the problem was that their journeys took place many years ago and I really wanted more up to date information. So it was very fortunate indeed to have met up with Astrid. In fact, if she is available, she has told me she would like to cycle with me for a while when I leave from the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Serendipity! Something always turns up.

This was again evident a few weeks later at a college in Oxford, where I teach photography. One of the reasons I chose to travel by bicycle was to travel slowly, soak up the atmosphere of places and to meet local communities. In Oxford, one of my fellow tutors told me about an organisation called Servas. This volunteer run organisation promotes understanding, tolerance and peace between countries and sets up registered hosts (local people who are willing to put travellers up for a couple of nights in their homes to help them understand the true nature of the country by staying in the community). I must admit I had never heard of them before, so I have registered with them and will wait to see what happens. I must attend an informal interview with a local representative and have passport photos ready and get character reference letters . So now, let me see, who will I contact for those....?!

So, it's all been very good news but I am sitll worried about one or two countries. No, not about the 'crickets on a stick' as mentioned in my last blog, or having to cycle through one or two of the more 'slighty dodgy' landscapes. No, the country I am most worried about is Italy! I love art and I keep thinking to myself, 'am I ever going to get out of Florence'! There will be so many artistic delights round every corner that I won't know where to start. I shall be excitedly scampering around from one dazzling, awe inspiring vision to the next, like a frenzied hen! I can only imagine future correspondence with loved ones going something like this......

'Debbie, it's been three years now since you set off - where are you now, India, China, Malaysia?'

'Nope, still in Florence'

Well of course, that's just Florence. Then there is Rome, Greece, Turkey and visiting the ancient city of Pergamon and of Alexander's personal court painter, Apelles, and his court sculptor, Lysippos, who in that ancient Greek, Hellenistic age, influenced later stages of western art.. and then there is Demosthenes, another influential ancient Greek sculptor, who brought a new dimension of expressive power to Greek portraiture... and then there is......... well, you will just have to wait to read the book!

catch up with you next month
bye for now

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The story so far....

The story so far....August 2010

Plans are going well. Researching the artistic theme for the trip is endlessly fascinating. From the joy of Monet's gardens at Giverny in France, to the fragrant gardens of the Taj Mahal, to the bronze statue and paintings of the horrors of Ypres, to Rembrandt's sketch of an Indian Moghul. Even sketches by Peter Mundy, a 16th century English traveller, who witnessed the building of the Taj Mahal and whose drawings showed how the early Indian Moghuls and their court, lived and moved around the country on their heavily decorated elephants and oxen. I'm constantly discovering these artistic threads, linking the countries I intend to visit.

The next stage in my preparation is to get all the maps I will need. I found to my delight that the only other Stanfords (the famous London map shop) is in Bristol! No need to trek all the way to London now when I have it on my doorstep. This is why I love living in Bristol - it has everything!

Having Stanfords on my doorstep means that I can now get down to the fine detail. My route then, is as follows: Leaving from Royal Academy of Arts in London - Dover to Dunkirk -Belgium -France - Switzerland -Italy - Greece - Turkey. Fly from Turkey to Pakistan or direct to India. (havn't decided on that one yet) Across and around India. Fly from India to Thailand. Thailand to Malaya to Singapore. Fly from Singapore to USA. LA to San Francisco - across USA to New York. New York to Dublin. Dublin to Hollyhead to Chester and follow Watling Street to London.

You will have to read the book I intend to write when I come back to find out why I 've chosen this route as it would take to long to explain here.

This is a long trip and I will need a break from cycling from time to time, so I will be having 'holidays' from cycling, where some of my friends will come out to join me for a week or so to relax and enjoy the sights and explore more of that particular country.

Whenever a long trip like this is planned there are people who will worry. A few of my friends and family have expressed concerns and anxieties about me going solo on this trip. So, I have put together a list from Lonely Planet's, book, 'Hot Hints and Tips for Travellers' that I was reading recently, to put you all at ease. These are some of my favourites....

'Lone female travelers attract far more kindness, invitations and favours than solo male and group travelers. So forget the essentials of the packing list such as torch, plugs and towel and instead, take one smart skirt and some lippy!'

'Next time you stop off at your local butchers to get some chump chops, ask him to also vacum pack your spare clothes to help save space'

'There are far more smiling faces to be found than dark alleys once you pass the departure gate'

'Those on a bicycle see more than those in a car. And those who stop just to sit and stare on a street corner or beside a rice field in Asia see the most'

'Going by bike gives you a true window on how people live. The museum you might forget but the people you meet - less likely.'

'You don't have to try the crickets on a stick if you are not comfortable with it'

And to finally put your minds to rest once and for all, I will end with this one...

'after the smallest snack, don't forget to wash your hands, -when your're asleep those cookie-crumbed fingers are the ones the rats lick first.'

I hope that's put your minds to rest now.

My own worry is that only having two panniers and a bar bag for all my worldly goods, means that I am constantly searching for ideas and items in which I can save space and weight. Attention to detail is everything on a bike, so here are a few weight saving items I have come across recently.

A spork - an aluminium spoon with 3 prongs on the end to double up as spoon and fork - hence the name, spork. A hairbrush that folds in on itself complete with a mirror in the handle (well it's so handy for putting on the lippy!) A miniature toothbrush that folds into its own case and a drinkng cup that collapses down as flat as a flying saucer. Fascinating - I'm eagerly looking out for any more of these space saving devices. And you all wonder what I do with my days now!

Well, I'm about to bury my head in more maps and books so watch out for the next update in September.


Monday, 28 June 2010

A long journey always begins with one small step..

I'm up and running ! Well, with this new blog is anyway!

It has been said that the planning of the trip is as exciting as the journey itself. True. I love the hustle and bustle of 'getting it all together'. The extra challenge for me, apart from the usual travel obstacles of vacinations, maps, planning the route and so forth, is that I will have to fit everything I need for the trip into two cycle panniers and a handlebar bag! Luckily I have done some short UK cycle tours before and have experience of cramming what I need into 2 small bags hanging off the back of a bicycle. However, a continuous world trip has many more demands and I will have to be disciplined and ruthless when packing for this trip next May!

Because I love the preparation and planning almost as much as the trip itself, I am starting this blog now - a year before departure - so that those of you who are keen to follow my journey - will be able to dip in and keep tabs on how I'm doing, as well as having a laugh at what is sure to be some mishaps and frustrations with whatever is thrown up before me in the next year. Also, if you are like me, and interested in the logistics of a journey, you will be kept up to date with just how my progress is doing and what I am doing as each month leads up to departure date.

Then when travelling, I will try to keep this blog up to date as much as possible but I am intending to cycle in a few remote places and may not be able to post to the blog for a short while. So, please do follow my journey and please buy my book that I am going to write when I get back!

thats all for now folks!

Watch this space