Home At Last… Older and Nicer Perhaps?

So – home at last.

This final blog needed to wait a few days since, as computers do, my mainframe took one look at me after three months away, 10kg the lighter and as fit as I’ve ever been, allowed me briefly to copy all my pictures off the camera on to the hard drive, deleting them from the memory card as I did, then crashed.

Never mind. Our friendly computer repair man here in Cirencester has sorted it out, and all is now back in action, and I can access my final frames.

It’s good to be back after 4170 miles, driving carefully as instructed left, and enjoying our gorgeous Wychcroft home (see below), and the warmest of welcomes from an at first understandably nervous Sue. I was too, but within minutes, it was almost as if I’d never been away, but positively so.

What have I learned? A lot. Much of which I’ve already, really, written about. It’s been serious fun keeping the blog, and it’s been so good to see so many old and newer friends along the way, connecting and reconnecting across Europe.

My good friend and colleague at the BBC, veteran and brilliant Radio 4 Documentaries Producer Simon Elmes, asked me before I set off at Easter if I’d be interested in doing a radio programme about my Euro-journey, pegged to next year’s 20th annniversary of the fall of Communism and our continent’s reunification. Jonathan Marks has also wondered whether there’s a programme in here.
I’m sad, but glad I have so far said no. This trip was too personally important, and it was special to be able to enjoy each day and each mile/kilometre for its own sake, without having to think (beyond the blog) of accountability to anyone else. Very un-journalistic.

But blogging and the internet made it anything but a lonely experience – something which perhaps, as a creature very much in need of constant connection, I had most feared.

My little PDA and the Blackberry deal with O2 worked brilliantly and relatively inexpensively, considering how much I emailed and the roaming calls I took. I was even able to keep up a little bit of psychotherapeutic continuity with clients old and new, and now look forward to taking that up again rather more formally, and from a normal phone/in a normal consulting room.

Who’s been reading this? I’m not entirely sure, but as I said in an earlier blog, you know who you are. Sue, see below, wasn’t among them – but hey, she’s had other exciting things to do. It wasn’t about reaching huge numbers of folk. A blog more for me, really, than for you. I do know, though, that my daily readers included my very lovely daughter Katharine. Who has just got a First Class Honours degree in Drama at Exeter University. Whoop! whoop! as she would say.

So, finally, a photo of Sue, Raven, me and Wychcroft in the background. Hens and cats missing, but they too were delightfully welcoming.

Journey over. For the time being. Iberian peninsula next year? Perhaps Beijing-Katmandu? Sue has even said she might come with me and we could do that on the tandem.

But first, in August, a week on the BBC Club narrow boat in Northern Wales, then three weeks tandeming with Sue up the Loire valley in France, chateau-after-chateau. Hoping for less rain and less wind than I had cycling the upper reaches of said river in April.

With the warmest of wishes. If you’ve read this, that means you really did read the blog. Thanks.


Raven’s Seat

And I couldn’t resist either a further almost-final shot, taken in Little Venice in Central London today, of Raven’s Brooks B17 leather seat after 4000 miles of intimate massage…

It looks, and feels, a whole lot more comfortable than when I set out at Easter.

Cycling into London from the English South-East, I have to say, came close to prompting a forgiveness of Belgium after all.

It was grim. Dirty, appallingly-signposted cycle tracks, ending in dead ends and glass-strewn back alleys. Unlovely in the extreme, and enough to put even the most dedicated continental cyclist off continuing a trip into deeper England.

I guess I really have been spoiled by Germany and The Netherlands, and even by France. And am look forward to going back to all those places, with tandem and Sue, soon – indeed, the Loire in August.

Indeed, both a blogging and cycling addict.

A Final Word on Climate Change

My name is Mark Brayne and I am a Blogger.

An addict, clearly. But Dorie said she’d appreciate some final, final thoughts, so, unable to resist another tipple, here’s a first batch.

Climate Change. Take a deep breath.

The picture illustrates, from Dunkirk, the quandary we’re in. Oil refinery in the background – the real stuff of global addiction. And windmills closer up – perhaps little more than an alibi function, too little too late?

I thought a lot on the bike about what’s awaiting humankind in the coming years, and probably a lot sooner than most people realise. And came to a list of fairly straightforward conclusions.

  • We, as just another species thrown up by evolution, are programmed to procreate, and multiply. We can’t help that. That’s the way – like other organisms from amoeba through ants right up to gorillas – we’re built.
  • Our problem – no great insight, this – is our gigantic, conscious brains. And the science-based ability they have given us, discovered only in the past few hundred years, to switch off evolution’s normal selection survival-of-the-fittest procedures. The result? A recipe for disaster.
  • Malthus in fact got it right – he just got his timing wrong. It’s not that we’re burning fossil fuels that’s the core problem. It’s that there are too many of us doing that for the planet to cope.
  • As animals first and humans only second, we are not capable of regulating our numbers. And we are not capable of sufficiently limiting our consumption.
  • The result is that, like yeast in fermenting beer, we are partying like there’s no tomorrow. Which, as for yeast in beer, there won’t be. The sugar/oil will run out, and we’ll be killed off by our by-products – alcohol in the case of yeast, and CO2 in ours.
  • It’s not easy to say this, but history will probably judge medical advances to have been the key development that sealed our doom. In particular antibiotics, and the realisation, with the discovery of germs, of the importance of hygiene.
  • Does science have the solution? Well, it’s science and technological development that have got us into this pickle by interfering with the planet’s natural systems of self-regulation. So I don’t agree with those who condemn discussion of technology-based solutions (iron filings in oceans, mirrors in space, CO2 pumps and the rest) as dangerous meddling.
  • We’ve already dangerously meddled, and although I’m not at all hopeful, without meddling further-but-better, we have no hope. On which click here for an outstanding article by Mark Lynas earlier this week in the Guardian.
  • Straying into really dangerous territory here, the truth is that liberal democracy and the liberal market economy have failed mankind. They cannot allow the difficult, unpopular decisions and leadership which could steer us away from disaster.
  • Is dictatorship the answer? Past evidence is not encouraging.

So, as I head for home in just a few days now, do I think it’s still, despite this complete Doomsday scenario, worth hoping and living and loving and longing.

You bet I do…

And Finally, Aboard the Ferry Home

As I cross the Channel from Dunkirk to Dover on my conclusive way home, this probably will be my last substantive blog post (though I might be tempted to indulge once more on climate change) .

Pic of Raven to illustrate, with rather bleak Dunkirk terminal and appropriately-named Norfolk Lines ferry (Norfolk being my home county in the UK) in the barbed-wired background.

So what have these 4000 miles (well, will be 4000 by the time I reach London tomorrow) really been about?

There are things one reveals in a blog. And there are things one doesn't. But let's say with TS Eliot (Prufrock?) that a pilgrimage is often about setting out on a journey of personal meaning and finding that the search takes you right back to where you began.

England, France (lots of it), Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Austria again, Hungary (at important length), Slovakia, Poland, Germany (again, and even more of it), Holland, Belgium (left with relief), France again and England…

Perhaps retrieving one's soul on a journey like this is a bit like the trauma therapy to whose practice I now return.

To lay to rest the ghosts, the unreal hopes of the past, the pain, the incomplete Gestalts (see much earlier blog posting….) you have to revisit and reexperience them, so you can, with luck and perhaps a touch more wisdom, move on.

Moving on of course having been the core theme of my journey with Raven – settling in over the months to a comfortable average, when on the road, of about 70-80 miles a day, or 100-120 km.

Mostly camping, with the odd youth hostel, plus welcome stays at friends homes, thrown in. It has been seriously fun, a very old dream realised.

I head for home in Cirencester, arriving Sunday afternoon after a stopover in London, feeling quite a bit fitter, in many different ways, than when I set out all those cold and sunny and rainy and wind-blown weeks ago.

To say that the world in its thousands and millions has awaited eagerly each new blog posting would be a mild exaggeration. But I know there are some of you out there who have enjoyed reading this.

And for all the profusion of professional words generated and edited over a long journalistic career, I've probably – no, definitely – enjoyed maintaining this blog and communicating with you in this way more than with anything I've ever written.

No editors to tell me to rewrite and refile. No concerns about implications in what I say for Reuters or BBC. And a closer sense of connection with you than even radio. Which considering my passion for that medium is saying something.

Doing the daily blog has given structure to my travels, and narrative-building context – a dialogue as I spin along mainly with myself, but given that's who I did the trip for, I guess that's OK.

So, a continent discovered and rediscovered, and wonderful friends, new but especially old, along the way, to whom my warmest and deepest thanks. You know who you are, and some of you also know just how important you've been.

Thanks of course (sounds like the Oscars…) also to Raven, my most trusty steed and companion, and the perfect therapist who never interrupts my flow of thought or feeling with a badly-timed or inapprropriate intervention.

She does need a new chainwheel, chain and sprocket, and a thoroughly good clean. (The attempt to change chains in Antwerp failed because the Rohloff sprocket was already too worn.) And I have finally replaced the rear brake blocks, although not yet the front.

As the sum total of maintenance needed, that's not bad for 4000 miles. So thanks also to Robin Thorn and his team at St John St Cycles in Bridgwater for designing and building the world's best trekking bike.

For all the half-way scare about an inflamed Achlles tendon, my 58-year-old physical system, including especially knees (the right one of which had keyhole meniscus surgery only last Christmas) has also held up pretty well.

And a final special thanks to someone who hasn't actually been reading the blog, busy as she is with her many other enthusiasms, namely my wife Sue.

She had the vision to encourage and support me in undertaking this venture, even though it wasn't always easy for her either.

As the saying goes, framed on our bedroom wall: A relationship that deals with truth walks always the fine line between chaos and cosmos.

So, in anticipation of a bit/even more of the latter, homeward.

And thanks for listening.

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Bye-Bye Belgium

On my last evening in Europe – well, on the European mainland, anyway – I could post some pretty pictures of Bruges, which is indeed Very Pretty, and say, Dear Belgium, all is forgiven.

But I won't, as all isn't.

To the bitter end, Belgium's road surfaces were s**t, often consisting (see pic) of lumpy concrete poured in a road-building style that went out of fashion elsewhere in Europe with Hitler's autobahns in the 1930s.

Big bumps every three metres, and not much fun for a Fietser, a Kerekpar or a bike.

Also, Bruges was EXPENSIVE. To the point of being a tourist rip-off. Four quid a beer. Evening meal of (small) portion of chips and half a (small) grilled chicken? Little change from 20 smackers.

But hey, the frites, on their own from a small roadside stall, were as brilliant as their reputation. Indeed, there's a museum in Bruges dedicated solely to Frites. Ought to be called Belgian fries, not French fries.

Also see satisfied pic, with tourist church tower in the background. Delivered to the table by the friteur with an "Enjoy Your Meal, Sir".

I did. But I enjoyed even more reaching France an hour later. No cycle tracks, but good roads, and cycle-considerate drivers.

So, Dunkirk ferry to Dover in the morning and after three months and well over 6000 kilometres, it's not just bye-bye Belgium but bye-bye continental Europe.

I'll pen some mighty pilgrimage-concluding mots on the boat, so for the moment, a few further random observations at this interesting, even a bit disconnected point on a journey I am beginning to realise I will rather miss.

For instance, how do you navigate in a country that has virtually no road signs?

The Belgians evidently don't believe in helping you to your destination. Brussels has almost no direction signs at all, and the countryside isn't much better.,

Without a compass – I chucked my old plastic one away just outside Berlin when it started giving me different Norths depending which direction I was pointing – I've developed a nifty system of using Raven's shadow as a kind of direction-finder.

Taking account of the time of day, the outline cast by bike-and-rider tells me where is East is in the morning, South at midday and West in the evening. Duhh.

It's worked brilliantly, although it does get a bit unreliable when it's pouring with rain, as it did again much of yesterday and this morning.

Still, combined with a 1:500,000 map (one cm = 5 km), it's got me to the Channel from Berlin, with only a couple of wrong turnings.

And finally for today. An amusing thought for the shrinks, or aspiring such, among my enormous readership (of not more than 10. Hi Mary, Richard, Fee, Petra, Diana, Renate, Dorie Clive…. And occasionally Mum, Agi, Claire and the kids…)

It's asparagus time in Europe, with "asperges" posted for roadside sale all over this French- and Dutch-speaking part of the continent.

Do you think someone with dyslexic tendencies who can't register other people's emotions properly, and who has an excessive appetite for fresh vegetables, might have Asparagus syndrome?


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Wet Gent and the Colonial Past

I'm afraid Belgium – and roads/cycle tracks/pleasure-at-being-in – isn't getting any better.

The rain doesn't help. The view above is of beautiful, tourist-magnet Gent this afternoon and the charming square in front of the cathedral here. Drenched, and as seen from a café to which I have repaired for some waffles en route from Brussels to Bruges.

At least the food here is delicious – as was Tamas's Hungarian goulash last night and palatsinta pancakes shared with his partner Moni and with Oana, who did gratifyingly manage to tear herself away from the aftermath of that Irish No-vote.

Marvellous to see them, and to be immersed again briefly in the minutiae of Euro-politics as seen from Brussels.

But Saturday also provided – for the moment un-illustrated – food for thought about Belgium's, Europe's, Britain's and indeed my own family's colonial past.

My middle name is Lugard, as is that of my father, his father, and of our own eldest son Christopher. The name is that of my great-great-uncle Lord Lugard, one of Queen Victoria's most energetic and successful colonists in the late 19th century.

Lugard secured Uganda for the British empire, founded the united state of Nigeria as its first governor, was then a very successful governor of Hong Kong, and is credited with inventing Britain's then very effective system of colonial rule through local potentates.

He was also – something that's maybe in the Lugard genes – a hopeless romantic, falling entirely inappropriately in love with a married woman while a junior colonial officer in India, and then getting himself a military posting to East Africa in the hope, essentially, of being killed and thus ending the misery of his rejected love.

In failing to get himself shot, Lugard acquired for Queen Vic a large chunk of Africa, and his biography makes gripping reading – as good in parts as the Flashman novels, except that this bounder was real, and actually from all evidence a very thoughtful, decent man.

And, of course, a product of his colonial times. Times when European states squabbled very unattractively in the grab for Africa, laying the foundations while they were at it for the First, and therefore also the Second, World Wars which devastated Europe itself.

Belgium’s part in that story is particularly unpleasant. King Leopold’s personal grab included great swathes of what’s now the Congo, and saw this country plundering Central Africa for rubber and resources, and, with the imposition of inappropriate administrative models, in turn setting the stage for the chaos and bloodshed, and genocide too, that have continued in bursts since independence in the late 1950s.

But thinking of Lugard, as I did while visiting King Leopold’s extraordinary Africa museum just outside Brussels, where IS the line between benevolent intervention and the abuse and exploitation of which the museum now, rather belatedly, acknowledges Belgium to have been guilty?

The Belgian legacy in Africa is now viewed, within Africa and outside it, as very negative. Yet Lugard is still, largely, revered in Nigeria.

Was British colonialism better than that of other nations? If so, how? Discuss.

With both my parents born in British India to colonial civil servants and with Lord Lugard perched prominently in the family tree, ours is a family with British/English history, as well, perhaps, as hopeless romance, imprinted in its genes.

And indeed, as I approach the end of these three months cycling across Europe, I carry back with me a very strong sense of how closely the emotional well-being and comfort-in-their-own-national-skin of this continent’s nations reflect their own parts in the turbulent and violent history of the past century-and-a-bit

World wars, colonialism, fascism, communism. Some sins acknowledged, some still denied and repressed. Some nations ready to face the past and accept responsibility where it is due. Others still finding that hard to do.

A complex and rich continent. With much more history still to be made.

The rain’s stopped. Time to move on.

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Brussels at last

I can’t say the experience of sorting Raven’s tyre problems out has entirely redeemed Belgium, especially after 40 miles yesterday into Brussels along some of the worst cycle tracks and road surfaces I’ve yet encountered.

But Kevin and Joey and their bosses at Jupiter cycles in Antwerp went a long way to reassuring me that, even if Belgium is something of a failed state, it by no means has failed people.

In fact, Joey and Kevin were a) brilliant at their job (truing Raven’s wheel with fine-tuned expertise), b) really decent folk, chatting away without concern for time about their passion for bikes, and, unlike the otherwise of course admirable Germans, where I was politely asked to stay out of the workshop of one bike shop, for insurance reasons, c) utterly unhung-up about me using their workspace and tools to change a tyre and a chain.

Lack of attention to detail in a state has its bad aspects, but it also has its upsides. Which is perhaps why also I’m increasingly, less than one week away now, looking forward to landing on planet England again.

Imperfect, bit messy, very backward in matters bicycle (or Fietser, as the Dutch/Flemish so delightfully call bikes), but home.

Hopes to spend a lot of time with Oana here in Brussels have been a bit stymied by the Irish inconventiently voting No in their Euro-referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Oana is utterly dedicated to Euro-affairs, and this is a BIG story here.

But we’re having lunch and hopefully some dinner today, with currently Brussels-based former Hungarian language service friend Tamas Foti who is generously providing a roof over the head for a couple of nights, as he did for my daughter Katie a few weeks ago.

As in Otterndorf, preceded by Mother, two Braynes are better than one…

Change of subject.

Renate wondered why I haven’t been writing in recent blogs quite so much about climate change. So, some heavy weekend thoughts.

Having spent so many hours so close to Europe’s glorious nature and wildlife over the past three months, I sadly remain convinced that this is all going to end in tears.

It’s tragic, as this is a good world, with wonderful nature, wonderful people, and largely with good intent.

But cycling alongisde Dutch motorways, experiencing the understandable aspirations of Eastern Europe for a share in this good life, or just being in Europe’s big cities with their ant-heaps of people and, by historical standards, astonishingly high standards of living, has constantly brought home to me how completely unsustainable all this is.

Almost all of it based on fossil fuels. Which have no long-term future. Even without the impact of rising sea levels, desertification and the rest. And Europe, and humankind in general, are just carrying on as if nothing will ever stop this.

Europe is and will be, at first, more protected from the worst immediate impact of change than will be Africa, Asia or America.

But catastrophe is coming. It’s just a question of how, and when. I fear deeply for the future of our amazing planet, and with it for that of my children and grandchildren.

But what a lovely planet it is.

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