“… we're sold a lie. Work hard, save for your pension and reap your reward when you retire. You've earned it! But even if you reach retirement age – hardly a given – your body is unlikely to manage the things it could in its twenties, thirties and forties. We see advertisements for retirement plans with silver foxes and foxettes engaged in something mildly adventurous, perhaps trekking up a little hill in the Lake District and beaming radiantly at each other in pastel knitwear. Look, folks, we got there. We're having the time of our lives. Buy our plan. But the things you'd ideally do today if only you'd more time might not be possible decades down the line. One dodgy knee and any physical plans are buggered.” Writes Steven Primrose-Smith near the beginning of this wonderful book.
After a near fatal brain haemorrhage (3 in fact), with high blood pressure and as a result of long-term hypertension with kidneys functioning at only 60%, Steven Primrose-Smith decided that there was a better way to recovery than taking pills for the rest of his life – instead he would spend the next 3 summers cycling 22,000 miles visiting every capital city in Europe – including the ones that aren’t really capitals (Douglas IOM; Cardiff; Monaco etc). At the same time he would do 3 OU degrees (and the OU network would be crucial in providing support on his travels) as well as in each country he visits try a food that he has never before tasted – the worst of which is very early on when in France he just about manages to hold down a ‘poo sausage’, other delicacies included instant donkey milk and even fried insects. His primary objective is to confirm, or otherwise, that there is nowhere worse in Europe e than his home town of Blackburn.
The book is a delight to read as Stephen succeeds in his objectives (except for reaching Moscow – which he wisely decides isn’t worth dying for given the nature of Russia’s roads and the competence of her drivers). The tales of his travels are well written and full of humour that had me laughing out loud – who for example would have known that the ‘Kunsthaus was an art gallery and not the Swiss parliament’ or that ‘Some lives seem to be defined by a single moment: Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, Einstein's imagining of special relativity, Josef Fritzl's first visit to The Ideal Home Exhibition’. These or just 2 of the vignettes that appealed to my particular sense of humour but there is plenty here for everyone. This is a great travel book in which the bike is important – particularly when in the final year it seems to struggle to keep spokes from breaking, but the cycling is not the story here – it is the places and the people along with Primrose-Smith’s story-telling that stand out.
The book is also something else. At the end Primrose-Smith realises that Blackburn isn’t that bad a place after all but that it is familiarity that breeds contempt. So instead of seeing this book as a travelogue it should also be used as an inspiration to get out there and do something yourself. Surely Primrose-Smith is right when he says “What I planned to do was the sanest thing ever. The nutty ones are those who say they'd love to do an adventure but never get around to it”. And to prove that his OU Maths course didn’t go to waste his final words on probability are worth repeating:
As Primrose-Smith says in his epilogue:
“The chance of your winning the jackpot of the UK lottery is extremely low, 1 in 13,983,816 to be precise (or 49!/43!6! if you want the calculation). You'd consider yourself very fortunate indeed if you won but you've already defeated much longer odds than those. You won life. For the sake of round numbers later down the line, let's assume the average woman is fertile from age nineteen to forty and has two and a half children that make it to sexual maturity. With one egg per month there's only a one in a hundred chance that… any particular egg will grow up and have children of its own. Let's also assume … the average length of a human generation, is 33 years….We can now go back to any given year and work out the odds of your being here from that date. Let's choose the year 1600. Since that time you have had about twelve ancestors, each with a one in a hundred chance of being born, meaning that, given the situation in 1600, the likelihood of your existing was one in 10012 or, … a bit less likely than winning the lottery jackpot three times in a row. If you want to calculate the odds of your being here from the year 300 AD – the year of Bruce Forsyth's birth – my scientific calculator gives up, but the odds are massive, something like one in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. And that was only 1,700 years ago. Modern humans are believed to have been around for 200,000 years and so your chance of being here since then is one in 1006000, which is one followed by 12,000 zeroes. Probability-wise that's roughly the same as winning the lottery jackpot every single Saturday from its launch in 1994 until the year 2027. But this is only a tiny fraction of the real calculation. You also have to consider all the evolution, with its random mutations, that had to occur exactly as it did over billions of years for humankind to come about in the first place, all the tectonic plate movements that isolated some populations and enabled others to be wiped out by predators, the geological make-up of the Earth and its composition as a result of condensing gases from the remnants of the early Solar System, but also the cloud from which the Solar System emerged and the earlier stars that burned their hydrogen and helium to form the heavier elements within that cloud that were eventually necessary to make you exactly as you are. The chance of your being here is so infinitesimally small as to be zero, or no chance whatsoever. You, me, any of us, shouldn't really be here at all. Make the most of it (my emphasis).”
I loved this book!