Tag Archives: adventure

Riding the flying bicycle

Riding the flying bicycle

A close friend is finishing uni at the moment. She’s 30 and has just submitted a PhD thesis that genuinely adds something to the sum of all human knowledge. I know she’d say it’s not much, that it’s a small thing, and maybe on the global scale she’s right. Nonetheless, I am so totally in awe of both the effort she put in and the fact that she has put her shoulder to the wheel and helped move her field along.

So I bought her a present. It’s this:

A white mug with people in gowns on flying bicycles

The mug design is by Quentin Blake, whose work I got to know and love as a child because he illustrated a lot of Roald Dahl books. As I’ve mentioned before, his artwork had a real impact on both my reading of Roald Dahl’s stories and the way I view the characters in them. I think it’s beautiful.

I really like this image, as a metaphor for graduation and moving on. I love the flocks of students taking off on their bicycles. University towns are full of bikes anyway, and there is a sense that students migrate, that they fly the coop in the summer, when the halls and colleges go quiet, and return, noisy as a flock of starlings in autumn.

Today, I’ve been thinking about riding that flying bicycle myself. When I bought the mug, it didn’t occur to me that there would be anything scary about the ride – but there is. Heading into the unknown is one of my favourite things. I love the moment of setting off. It’s exhilarating beyond belief. Being a planner, I’ll have made sure that my frame is sturdy and my tires are pumped (I take far better care of my metaphorical bikes than my actual ones). I’ll have comfortable shoes and probably a packed lunch. I try to have money in my pocket, in case I crash into a cloud and need to call a flying taxi.

But you can’t really prepare fully, can you? You can’t prepare for that moment when you look down, and the world is so far away that it seems like you could never get home again. Or that shaken feeling you get after a near miss, a lightning bolt or runaway dragon that bowls you over, leaving you counting your limbs and seriously anxious about the answer. And nothing can prepare you for the full-on hits, the ones where neither you nor your flying bike will ever be quite the same again.

Right now, I’m peddling along, waiting for take off in my own way. The best metaphor I’ve found for this late stage of a first pregnancy is (and bear with me, or go off and sympathize with K who thinks this is mad) sky diving.

I went sky diving at university. One of the fund raising clubs organized it, and you were supposed to get a certain amount of donations to cover your jump plus a bit over for charity. That didn’t seem entirely fair to me, on the basis that I was in it purely for the thrills, so I put up the jump bit and hit up friends for the genuinely-for-charity bits. It was still a really cheap way to go sky diving.

The dive site was somewhere outside Scunthorpe, and the day was typical of the Yorkshire weather with high grey cloud making everything seem drab. We had a whole series of safety lectures and demonstrations, then sat around in a tin hut waiting for the weather to either clear or get worse, so we’d know if the jumps could go ahead.

It eventually cleared enough for us beginners to jump. About half a dozen of us were loaded into a plane, each with our instructor. They chatted over the noise of the engine, just another day at the office. We tried not to throw up.

What I remember most is having no idea of what it would be like. I’m tall, and they prefer your instructor to match or outweigh you, so I had a big bear of a man whose name tag read ‘Baldrick’. When it was our turn, he clipped me onto him, shouted us through some safety checks, and then we slid up the bench (wooden benches! on an airplane!) and out the door.

For few terrifying moments, as we went from upright (stepping out the door) to face down (correct sky diving position) I really felt like I was falling. It is one of the physically scariest things I’ve ever known.

After that, when we were in position, the sensation of falling vanished. The earth was spread out, so far below us that we couldn’t (I decided) possibly hit it. How would we get there? And I relaxed.

Jolting out of free fall when Baldrick opened the parachute was another shock. Floating gently down, which took about 15 minutes, was an odd mix of thrilling (there is nothing under my feet!), awkward (what, exactly, do you say to the stranger whose chest you’re strapped to at a time like that?) and an odd high-intensity boredom (is that still Scunthorpe in the distance? Yep. Hmm. Grey skies. Eh. Are those green smudges trees? Couldn’t the world have laid on better scenery for this moment?).

Landing, again, was a bit scary. We’d been warned that it was the most dangerous part, as you’ve got momentum and it’s easy to twist an ankle. (Or get crushed, I thought, by the giant bear strapped to your back.) But even that was fine, and I stumbled back into the club house with shaky legs, a big grin and a feeling of relief: I’d done it. It was awesome.

At this stage, we’re in the plane. We’re circling higher and higher around the airfield. At some point soon, a professional will tell me: yep, this is it. It’s now, it’s really happening now. There will probably be some safety checks and a moment of pure terror.

And then, at some point after all that, we step out the door with our new baby. What happens next? I really have no idea. Somehow, I understand, you get back to earth where everything is normal and people make you cups of tea. And you get so blasé about the whole thing you may well do it again. But on the way down? Not a clue.

I guess we’ll find out.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

Another children’s classic, #57 Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome was written in 1930 and set just a year earlier. It paints an idyllic picture of a childhood holiday to the Lake District, which is in the north-west of England. There’s no sign of the financial troubles brewing or any grief left from the First World War. This England is, indeed, a green and pleasant land.

Swallows and Amazons follows the summer adventures of four siblings: John, Susan, Titty and Roger, on holiday with their mother and two-year-old sister Vicky in the Lake District. After they get permission from their father, away at sea, they are allowed to sail the small boat, Swallow, on the lake and camp on the deserted island nearby.

Then and now
Perhaps the most striking thing, as an adult reading the book, is the amount of freedom the kids have. They go off to camp on an island in the lake for about two weeks, with no adult in hailing distance. They’re expected to feed themselves, which includes cooking over an open fire. They sleep in tents on hay mattresses, and the tents are lit with candles. They row or sail on the lake and swim and bathe in it with no life preservers or any supervision. Roger, it turns out, can’t swim more than three strokes without putting his foot on the bottom.

It seems ferociously dangerous. It sounds like the sort of adventure that gets ill-prepared adults helicoptered down from Snowdon today, and the kids don’t have anyone to yell for if something goes wrong. I spent the whole book with my heart in my mouth, somehow expecting the narrative to slip, reality to kick in and them all to be drowned. But of course, it’s a novel (and the start of a series) so nothing too terrible can happen.

I can’t tell if I’m overly cautious or if their parents and society are just very relaxed about the whole thing. I can’t tell how old the kids are. I find it hard in books of this era, as teenagerdom doesn’t seem to have been invented. Children are children until, suddenly, they’re adults. You see the boundaries more in Agatha Christie novels than in children’s stories. I would peg John and Susan as being around 12, but they could just as well be 17 and 15, or 15 and 13, which would make more sense from a safety point of view. Roger sounds like he’s about 6.

Moreover, I come from a mountainous, cold place, where water can be deep, dark and dangerously cold even in summer, so falling in isn’t as trivial. Also, I don’t sail at all, and don’t know the Lake District, so I really don’t have a clear idea of what the real risks are. In any case, their father consents with a cavalier telegram:

Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown

and the children go off to begin their adventure. And what an adventure it is…

Child’s play
One of the things I did like about the book was that both boys and girls muck in. On the Swallow, John is the oldest, so he’s the captain. On the Amazon, Nancy is the oldest, so she’s the captain. Susan does the cooking, as first mate, Nancy doesn’t, as captains don’t. Titty is the second sister. In a Blyton book she would be relegated into obscurity, but Ransome gives her a strong and distinct character, perhaps the most enjoyable of all.

All the children have active imaginations, and the camping expedition is written as one long game of pretend. With the boat as the centre of their play, they’re castaways, pirates, Robinson Crusoe, a war vessel and more by turns, sometimes changing plot from minute to minute. It’s a beautiful thing to read. I remember, as a kid, being caught up for days in some complicated and detailed plot that my brother and/or a friend and I invented. We had one thing where the beds were spaceships that involved dozens of tiny bits of paper as currency, supplies and goods, and toys as crew and passagers and… it’s all very boring to a passerby, unless it’s well written. Ransome has the knack, and makes the fantasy within the fantasy and the reality within the fantasy blend together beautifully. It’s a very well crafted book, and in that sense reminds me of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was fascinating to read as a glimpse into a completely different world. I imagine it would be like someone reading about some of the stupid things my brother and I did (entirely safely) on skis, or how his scout troop, age about 10, went camping in the winter, without tents. (They dug snow holes and were all quite snug.) I do recommend the book. If nothing else, it will give a kid some great new ideas for let’s pretend.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz

I’ve just finished #150 Skeleton Key by Anthony Horowitz and I really don’t think I have anything new to say about this, having posted about Stormbreaker and Point Blanc, the first two books in the Alex Rider series. Still, it seems fitting that I posted about the first one during last year’s Children’s Book Week and I’m finishing the third (and the last on the list) as this year’s CBW draws to a close.

Alex Rider is just 14, and yet he’s already been drawn into working for MI6. Going undercover, he foils plots to take over or destroy the world, aided and abetted by a series of quirky gadgets and his almost superhuman abilities. Skeleton Key draws on motifs established in earlier books but works well as a stand alone. In this story, Alex faces his toughest challenge yet: will his longing for an ordinary life be his undoing?

Let’s talk about spoilers
I try to write these reviews without any spoilers. This is difficult as different people find different details spoilery. Broadly, I try not to reveal anything that isn’t on the back of the book (you’ll find quite a lot of spoilers there, sadly) or that would reduce the suspense, prematurely untangle a mystery or otherwise ruin the ending or the good bits in the middle.

The Alex Rider books are difficult for me because on the one hand, the broad arcs are quite predictable but the details are not. This is to Horowitz’s credit, in a sense, because I do like to be surprised. However, I find the Alex Rider books to be like listening to a toddler tell you about their plans for the future. In both cases, the technology is unbelievable and the whole thing hangs together with only a thin thread joining it. I daren’t pull to hard on any one element in the story as the plot and locations jump around so much that simply mentioning one exploit could strip the previous pages of tension. Plus, I can’t figure out how to mention one exploit since I can’t really explain why Alex is in any of these situations or why he reacts as he does except that he is both astonishingly well trained and doesn’t always think things through.

How do you like your heroes?
Alex is pretty near perfect, except that he’s sort of intolerable, and I just don’t care. I appreciate that I’m not the target market – I may get K to read these as he was once a teenage boy and still likes films where stuff blows up – but I’m not that interested in perfection of either gender. It tends to be stultifying and entirely context driven. For example, Alex seems to be able to context switch flawlessly, operating smoothly as a junior spy or a school kid, but either set of behaviour would be completely inappropriate in the other environment. Another story with this character in would be the one where the child pushed too far too fast by demanding adults turns to drink to drown their perceived imperfections and failures. I’d believe that story, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy it.

Alex is perfectly suited to handle everything the world throws at him, and the world only throws things at him that he can handle. This is a real risk with any long running hero if their competence is repeatedly tested in so many outlandish ways. The Harry Potter series were at risk of this too, and dealt with it well, I think, by ‘going dark’ and throwing things at Harry he couldn’t properly handle and having him react to failure and loss. Alex, at this stage, is unformed. He is a vessel for his experiences and rarely seems to act on any emotion. He gets annoyed with his handlers but that’s about it. I’d be interested to know if he develops over the following books, but I really don’t think I can be bothered to read them.

All in all, this was another book in the vein of the previous novels, and I would recommend it to Bond fans and action movie fans who don’t usually like reading. The pace, plotting and devices are very similar. That said, I haven’t read any of the Bond novels so I may be doing Flemming a disservice with the comparison.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.