Enter the Guildford Street Gang – the expedition #adventure #travel book excerpt 7

The expedition’s UK patron, HRH The Duke of Gloucester, christens Moksha prior to the River Thames launch. 1994.

As well as fallings-out, another feature of being continually broke planning an expedition was the need to learn a staggering array of new skills we couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to do. This meant learning how to use a computer, no mean feat back in the days of MS DOS, writing proposals, press releases, public speaking, public relations, drawing up budgets (ever-hopefully), pitching to potential sponsors, applying for visas, researching route options, first aid training…
One thing beyond us, however, was how to film it. After two early camera operators fell by the wayside, a magical solution transpired from north of the border in the form of Kenny Brown, a native Glaswegian and budding documentary filmmaker. We met for a show-and-tell one March evening at the Chandos pub, north of Trafalgar Square. Steve and I couldn’t understand a word Kenny said. The thick Scottish brogue firing off at a thousand words a minute proved utterly unfathomable:
Soonds loch an amazin’ adventure yetois haegot gonnae thur.” [1]
“Uh, I’m sorry?”
So when daeyetois think yoo’ll beheadin’ aff ‘en?[2]
“Eh? What was that again?”
He was an intriguing character to look at. A pointy nose, shaped like a turnip pulled out of the ground at an awkward angle, was set above a mouth too small for its head, the top of which was shaved entirely apart from a forelock of brown hair sprouting out like a proboscis. His eyes were shrewd and constantly moving, scrutinizing, suggesting a razor sharp mind at work.
Being at a loss to understand a single word he was saying, the proboscis transfixed me instead. Occasionally, when he leaned forward for his beer, it slipped and dangled over his glass like some tubular sucking device. Fascinated as a child by the emergency stop cords on trains, it was all I could do not to reach out and give it a good yank to see what might happen.
Kenny worked part time as a bicycle messenger to supplement his filmmaking aspirations, and lived in a spartan North London squat with eleven others. His milky complexion was maintained by an exclusively vegan diet, upheld with strict Calvinist-like fervour along with a number of other austere opinions, not least a violent dislike of slackers, hippies, and anything remotely touchy-feely. As Steve began outlining our plans to interview schoolchildren along the way for a film on world citizenship – “To encourage empathy, tolerance, and compassion between cultures” – I noticed Kenny squirming in his seat. From what could be deciphered from the rapid-fire volleys, his main interest in the project was the biking, the filming and “Taykin’ phoo-oos.” Everything else was fluff.
Despite the language barrier and emotional allergies, Kenny’s show-reel was inspired, and his no-nonsense, can-do attitude clearly an asset. He was duly invited to join. A week later, I became the squat’s thirteenth member, partly to concentrate on the media effort with Kenny, but also to create breathing space between Steve and I. We’d be living in each other’s pockets for the next three years as it was. The last thing we wanted was to start the expedition needing a holiday from each other.
Encompassing four floors of a rambling Russell Square town house, the Guildford Street squat quickly became the nerve centre for the press campaign, filming, bike equipment, food, and other overland logistics. Though the place was functional, comfort was not a word to use in the same sentence to describe it. The walls and floors were stripped bare. There was no heating. During the freezing months of March and April, Kenny and I spent our days bundled up in every piece of clothing we owned, tapping away at a pair of prehistoric computers salvaged from a skip, writing sponsorship proposals until the early hours of the morning. Exhausted, we would then roll up on the floor and grab a few hours sleep.
Gulag-like conditions aside, the squat’s other denizens yielded a veritable treasure trove of artists, authors, musicians, blaggers, and petty criminals. The Guildford Street Gang was always ready to lend a hand in the effort, in some cases becoming semi-permanent fixtures. There was Jim, a disc jockey and editor of the mordant political magazine Squall, who volunteered as the expedition’s unpaid press officer; Catriona, a voluptuous redhead, whose adroit handle on English prose knocked our sponsorship proposals into shape; Fingers, an amateur boxer turned professional thief, who specialized in cheque fraud; and Martin, a mild-mannered vegetarian chef and skilled bike mechanic, who offered to set up our bicycles and assemble the food for the Atlantic crossing.
The combined effort produced a very different outcome to what otherwise might have been had the expedition actually managed to hook a title sponsor, as money, and the way it twists agendas, never came into it. At our first major press event on the River Thames, when the expedition’s UK patron, HRH The Duke of Gloucester, christened the boat Moksha, the Guildford Street Gang expedited logistics.[3] The groundswell of an organic support network was a characteristic of the expedition that stuck early on, becoming central to its identity over the years. It kept the whole thing real, a human-powered expedition to its core.

All Rights Reserved – © 2012 Jason Lewis


[1] Sounds like an amazing adventure you two have got going there.

[2] So when do you two think you’ll be heading off then?

[3] Moksha is a Sanskrit word meaning freedom, or liberation, from all worldly desires, ignorance, and suffering. For Hindus and Buddhists, it represents the last state of transcendence before nirvana, the final release from Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth (reincarnation). The choice of name was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s book, Island.

Cinematographer Kenny Brown uses air mattress to stay afloat mid-ocean.