Thirteen years earlier. Paris, August 1992
“It’s incredible isn’t it,” Steve exclaimed, “how no one’s thought of it yet?” As he’d already pointed out, the Earth had been circumnavigated using everything from sailboats, to airplanes, to hot air balloons. Yet the purest, most ecologically sound method of all and doable for centuries, without using fossil fuels, was still up for grabs. “It may even be an original first!” he continued excitedly.
My old college pal Steve Smith and I were slumped on the kitchen floor of his flat in Paris, drinking Kronenbourg 1664 at two in the morning. A map of the world lay between us, paddled by the slowly revolving shadow of an ornate ceiling fan that gave the apartment an air of French colonial panache.
“So, you reckon all the other big firsts in exploration and adventure have been done?” I asked.
Steve had clearly done his homework, proceeding to reel off some of the more notable feats of the last century: Amundsen beating Scott to the South Pole in 1911; Hillary and Norgay summiting Everest in 1953; Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969. By 1992, however, it was slim pickings with the exception of the deep oceans and outer space. Nearly every square inch of the planet’s surface had been trampled upon, sailed across, flown, or driven over. Explorers and adventurers were fast becoming a rare breed, increasingly reliant upon inventive wordage to pass off a gimmick, or variation on a well-worn theme, as something genuinely different.
“It won’t be long before the media,” he finished off dryly, “run a story about the first blind-folded transsexual to snowboard down Everest in a thong.”
I smiled. “That’s been done already hasn’t it?”
“Not on a dustbin lid.”
Earlier that afternoon I’d flown from London, taking up Steve’s invitation for “a bit of piss up – you know, just like old times.” I should have smelt a rat right there. We’d barely seen each other since our final year at university. Why the grand reunion now all of a sudden?
The reason soon became clear after we rendezvoused at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and began lurching our way into the centre of the city on the metro. Clutching the steel bar above his head and raising his voice over the clattering wheels, Steve pitched the most ingenious, hair-brained, inspirational, irresponsible, guaranteed-to-give-your-mother-a-cardiac-arrest idea I had ever heard:
A human-powered circumnavigation of the globe…
Those few words hung suspended in the carriage for a moment, like a spell, putting goose bumps on my skin. I mean… to travel as far as you can go over land and sea, to the very ends of the Earth itself, under your own steam. No motors or sails. Just the power of the human body to get you there and back again. It had to be the ultimate human challenge.
As Steve continued outlining his plan, my head filled with wildly romantic images: riding bicycles across the barren steppes of Central Asia, trekking through the frozen wastes of the Himalayas, staring into the flames of a roaring campfire after a hard day hacking through the Amazonian rainforest. What about the oceans? I wondered. Rowing? Swimming? Paddling a Boogie Board? And why was Steve asking me of all people to join him?
I had absolutely no experience as a so-called “adventurer.” I’d travelled before, but never far off the beaten track: Kenya for three months after school, Cyprus during college, and the US for a spell immediately afterwards. From the age of sixteen, I devoted myself to singing in a grunge band that played in all the usual London toilets: the Falcon in Camden, the Half Moon in Putney, the Bull and Gate in Kentish Town. It was fun in the early days when we hadn’t taken ourselves too seriously. The first outfit, Dougal Goes to Norway, was a cover band distinguishable from the rest only by our Viking helmets and kilts – nothing on underneath. Later, we tried to make a proper go of it, releasing a vinyl EP. But with the entire band of five, plus two dogs and three cats, crammed in a two bedroom semi-detached house in Staines—The Shitehouse, as it was known—it had all become a bit of a grind.
I paid for my music habit with “Ballistic Cleaning Services Inc.,” a window cleaning business under contract with various restaurants and hotels in the West London area. When not leaning off ladders buffing windows, my partner Graham and I could typically be found wheezing up and down the A332 between Egham and Bracknell in the pride of the fleet, an X-reg Morris Marina van costing fifty quid from a scrap yard off the Old Kent Road. Spray-painted with the slogan “Get Realistic. Go Ballistic!” the company jalopy had no registration, road tax certificate, or insurance. But it was mechanically sound. And apart from one occasion when a rear wheel fell off and overtook us along Ascot High Street, it had never let us down.
Surely, however, these weren’t suitable qualifications for an undertaking such as this?
I shot Steve a sidelong look. “You sure you want me as your expedition partner?”
“And it’ll take around three years to complete you say?”
“If we can find sponsorship.”
Taking a swig, I surveyed my old friend. Like many of our deskbound graduate peers, he looked anaemic, badly in need of some sun. But while others were already turning paunches, Steve remained athletic and trim, not an extra ounce of fat on his body. And he still had the same steady cobalt gaze.
The first time we met I was supine on a stranger’s bed in one of the halls of residence, my arm around a girl, the other around a bottle of vodka. As the party wore on, I became dimly aware of the bed’s owner – Steve as it turned out – glaring at me from across the room.
Steve took an instant dislike to “that unruly farm boy” who’d soaked his bed in vodka. In time, however, attending the same biology and geography lectures, we became good friends. After a weekend poaching trout on Dartmoor when we should have been sitting through stultifying lectures on tor formation at a local field studies centre, we began taking off on spontaneous rambles around London. A three-day hike on the Chilterns in south Oxfordshire was one. Disembarking the train at Princes Risborough, we discovered neither of us had a sleeping bag, or a tent. It was the middle of January. Night-time temperatures were well below freezing. That first night we slept on the floor of a pub, sneaking back through the lavatory window we’d left ajar before being turfed out. The second night we lucked out, chancing upon a hay barn. Otherwise, we would have likely frozen to death.
Such was our early friendship, defined by episodes of kamikaze impetuousness swaggering along the knife-edge of fate – the sharper the edge the better.
Further fuelled by beer, brainlessness and a shared bent for challenging authority, we developed a penchant for egging each other on in a series of puerile college pranks, culminating in the erection of a fifteen-foot-high penis made from cardboard, party balloons and a pink bed sheet on an ornate spire at the entrance to campus. The pathetically limp protest directed at a visiting politician, made even more so by a light drizzle, was the best we could deliver as an anti-establishment statement at the time.
Then we went our separate ways: Steve into a career as an environmental scientist, myself into the giddy world of crooning in dive bars and cleaning windows.
“So where did you get the idea?” I asked.
Steve pursed his lips and shook his head at the memory. “I was working for the OECD at the time. At first I thought I’d be making a difference, writing reports for politicians to integrate environmental sustainability into their economic development policies.”
Like a growing number in his field, Steve was alarmed by the ballooning number of human beings on the planet, ten billion by 2050, all aspiring to the same level of prosperity as the average Westerner – as seen on TV. Conservative estimates for meeting consumption demands without further depleting resources or biodiversity from 1994 levels was set at eight additional Earths.
“But the reports fell on deaf ears,” he went on. “An inhabitable planet for future generations is a lovely idea, the economists said, but we simply can’t afford it.”
Instead of falling into line with offers of promotion and salary increases, Steve took a stand.
“I felt like grabbing those short-term-thinking fuckwits by their starched collars and saying, ‘haven’t you seen the data on climate trends and species extinctions? We can’t afford not to do something. We’ll be next!’”
Small wonder he was duly assigned to a very different field of study: assessing the environmental impact of creosote on motorway fence posts. Their plan worked. Steve became disillusioned, staring out of the window, his mind wandering…
“That’s when I thought: what if I were free to do anything, anything at all, what would I be doing with my life right now?
He knew it had to be something to do with travel, and adventure, and on a big scale.
“And what bigger than around the world?”
The mode of propulsion was a stumbling block. It needed to be inexpensive, with minimal harm to the environment.
“Engines and I don’t get along. And if animals were involved, they’d all be dead within the month.”
Then it came to him. The Eureka Moment. The cheapest, least technical, lowest impact power of all. Human power.
“So, what do you think Jase? You up for it?”
I looked out through the kitchen window, past the wrought-iron balcony into the Paris night. The blank spaces on the map with no roads or towns marked I found utterly captivating. And a sabbatical from music might revitalize the songwriting juices. Moreover, if we left sooner rather than later, I might avoid a thorny court case for crashing the Ballistic cleaning van into a Rolls Royce off the Fulham Road and having to do a runner.
But there was something else.
I cast my mind back to when I was sixteen, sitting in the warm, dusty office of the school’s career advisor.
“What profession interests you?” he’d enquired.
“Why?” I answered.
“Why a career?”
The advisor stared at me. “It’s what people do. To earn a living.”
“Right. But what’s the endgame? The point of it?”
Put another way, I might have asked whether it was just about ‘the job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc player, the electronic tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage starter home…’ Wasn’t there more to life than this?
Apparently there wasn’t, as the careers advisor sighed and sent me on my way.
My fear was blindly subscribing to the whims of an increasingly materialistic society, with its shallow mediocrity and hollow indulgences, offering no deeper meaning or purpose than the indiscriminate production and consumption of Stuff, the treadmill existence of human battery hens.
The Industrial Revolution had produced impressive leaps in technological advancements, for the West in particular, improving people’s quality of life beyond question – healthcare, economic well-being, education, and so on. But where were the corresponding ethical advancements? Where was the philosophical framework to give value and meaning to these improvements? Our uniquely large brains had created systems and machines to make life safer and easier, but that was as far as it went. Human existence, and thus technology, boiled down to acquisition of power and resources. The key to success involved manipulating, exploiting, and generally competing against one’s fellow man and other species with Darwinian zeal, employing the very same qualities that won us pole position in nature’s league table in the first place.
But if Darwin was right, and natural selection is the blind chauffeur behind the wheel of evolution, driving human existence with no set route or destination in mind, why did people demand something “other” to give meaning to their lives? Like turning to a god, or some other invisible force pulling the strings according to a more intelligent design, providing people with a moral compass and higher purpose.
Life. How to live it?
Years after meeting with the career advisor, this still seemed to me the question that needed answering before any other, certainly before what cookie-cutter career to select from the corporate vending machine. In a twenty-first century world imperilled by the myopic attitude of humans, the search for a unifying Philosophy for Life, one that offered a big picture perspective on how to live sustainably on a crowded planet, was a quest worthy of the dangers that lay ahead.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I said.
Steve grinned. “Great!”
“There is, however, one other question I have before signing on the dotted line.” I stabbed at the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the map. “These blue areas––”
“Yes! Yes! The big wet bits,” he interrupted enthusiastically.
“Right, the um… big wet bits. How do we get across those then?”
“Easy. We’ll kayak from Scotland to Greenland, across to Canada, and then––”
“You’re crazy. Neither of us has kayaked before!”
“Oh shit, Jase. How hard can it be? I mean, all you gotta do is go like this, and we’ll get there eventually.” And with these reassuring words, he lurched to his feet and began whirling his arms around his head in the manner of a paddling kayaker.
I roared with laughter. “I was wrong. You’re not crazy. You’re fucking insane!”
Clearly, neither of us had any idea of what we were getting into. But, as we found ourselves reminding each other frequently from that point on, lack of experience isn’t a good enough reason not to try. Besides, as the sagacious old comic strip character Hagar the Horrible once noted, “Ignorance is the Mother of all Adventure.” And if I’d known what I was letting myself in for, I probably would have never agreed to join.
 The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
 Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.