We have been following the adventures of Julian Sayarer for several years, since I first met him in the now defunct (and much missed) Foundry Pub in Old Street. This week sees the official launch of his debut travelogue Life Cycles at cult cafe Look Mum No Hands, so we caught up with him to find out more about cycling, breaking records and writing books.
It’s been a while since you cycled around the world – would you do it again? And what would you do differently if you set off on a similarly long cycle ride?
I’ll definitely be cycling a long way again sometime in the future. There are vague plans for riding to Beijing in 2015, and Latin America still has a really strong appeal. The chances are that, if I set out again, there wouldn’t be a world record involved. Once you get into a routine, riding 110 miles a day isn’t quite as daunting as it sounds, the element of a race did add some fun, and I really like the intensity of all those fleeting impressions, but that said, I wouldn’t mind going a bit slower… it’d be nice to stop for longer in the really amazing places, and not having to cut short some of the encounters.
How did you find a publisher for your book, and what would you recommend to other would be travel writers looking for a deal?
I went for the Writers & Artists yearbook, which includes a directory of agents, and submitted the standard first thirty pages to those that sounded suitable. A handful offered to represent me, and I went with my instinct, and the advice that most people in the industry had given: to go with whichever agency I felt most comfortable with. I’ve got a good relationship/friendship with my agent now… he’s really helped me to develop my writing, and gives me a lot of time of day, and feedback, that I don’t think the bigger agencies I turned down would’ve had much interest in helping with.
In retrospect, I potentially could have got a publisher with just a sample chapter and a covering letter of what I’d done, but that isn’t always the case. Although the agent takes a cut, they certainly open up options that quite probably wouldn’t otherwise exist, and allow you to focus on the creative side of the work.
I think the main thing, with any sort of writing, and however cliché, is just to do it for the love of it. It’s a slow and poorly paid world, and unless you simply love the act of writing, it’d soon get a bit dispiriting.
What is the book about and who do you think it will appeal most to?
Human scenery… the politics of the world at 12mph? I’d like to think it would appeal to anyone with an interest in the world or writing, really. There are a lot of cycle touring books that just describe headwinds and hills and mechanical problems… it ends up a bit of a list of everything that happened (with a dash of self-help and motivational stuff thrown in) and that’s really off-putting to me. I try and create places and experiences with the words, and only really mention the bicycle when it’s really necessary. I always loved writing, and storytelling in particular, so it was always my intention to go for something that tried to be a bit literary, creative, experimental. I’m not sure how much that’s been done before, on this subject.
What do you love most about the act of writing?
The absolute freedom of a page, the fact that it’s mine to create anything I want with. The fact that I can put all of my thoughts into words and then, for good or bad, they lose their weightiness and become only a form upon a piece of paper. My writing has become a really good friend to me, it’s helped me through a lot.
You are also making films and I believe that you recently spent time living with the Moken sea gypsies – can you tell us more about this particular adventure?
I’d written a series on the EU financial crisis, for the New Statesman, as I cycled through Europe to Istanbul in 2012. A producer had read the articles, really liked them, and got in touch in search of a writer for a documentary project in Asia and the Pacific. The Moken are an indigenous people of southeast asia, they live on the water, but that life, and the islands they move between, are all being threatened by the usual advances of modernity: land speculation, overfishing, mass tourism, oil exploration, border disputes between Myanmar and Thailand.
The documentary is still in post production, but Aeon Magazine commissioned an article from the trip. I looked a lot at indigenous culture, the way that economically developed countries can fetishise it. The Moken lead a hard life, many of them would perhaps like it to be easier, many young Moken are abandoning their traditional ways of life to move to the mainland, but often experience a lot more difficulties than they do on the water. It’s not to say that anything or anyone is timeless, Moken included, but development and change should be sensitive to culture, and too often it isn’t.
You have also been involved with arts projects – have you got anymore of these in the pipeline and if so what?
I’ve exhibited photography, and am a trustee with a charity that does participatory arts workshops with youngsters who are marginalised by either poverty or social stigma. I don’t know really, I think writing is more my natural calling, and it probably helps to focus on one thing. I’ve got a few ideas for exhibitions, but they’re kept company by lots of other ideas, most of which are unlikely to come to fruition, or will crystallise into something that right now I don’t see coming!
How much do you cycle today and what kind of bike do you ride?
How much I cycle depends a lot on where I am. Sometimes I’m cycling somewhere and working on a piece of travel writing, sometimes commuting on a bicycle in London, sometimes in a city without a bicycle and just walking around a lot. To be honest, I do miss it when I don’t ride at all for a while… cycling really gets me thinking, somehow looking at the world differently, and I think the exercise is good for the brain as much as the body.
I have a steel frame touring bicycle which was given to me as sponsorship, and I generally find too expensive to leave anywhere. I also find it hard to get attached to things that are worth a lot of money. I cycle around London on a shabby old fixed gear that must have done just as many miles, on the streets of the city.. I find that one much more charming.
I hear there is a second book in the wings… can you tell us more about it?
I spent three years working as a cycle courier in London, and if I see the first book as the story of the world on a bicycle, the second is the story of the city, plus a bit of me adjusting to standing around with strangers in lifts, while I could still remember riding through deserts in central Asia.
It’s a bit of an unseen London really; my brother delivered flowers to the MP who was stabbed by a young constituent in Whitechapel, I had the painful experience of delivering flowers to congratulate Cameron and his wife when they formed the government in 2010. I delivered administration notices to Lehman Brothers in 2008. There’s a really strong subculture to the couriers, I wouldn’t say I’m one of them as such, but there’s a really tender sense of kin there, and it’s valuable to work with the sort of people that it’s all too easy not to come into contact with in society… bicycles are good for that in general.
I know a courier who occasionally rode around with a beer can, with pierced holes in the side, where normally you keep a water bottle. He used the can to smoke crack, clear as day, off a fairly busy street in Soho. There are a few riders who’ve done time in jail, a lot of them have perhaps made their lives harder than they needed to be, and a lot of them were probably just born into lives that were always going to be difficult. They’re all incredibly good, tender people, and the job and the culture of London’s roads is hard enough that it can really harden your soul. I don’t know, I think we live inside a system that doesn’t honour human beings as it should, and I want to make some small mark against that, by chronicling a lot of the realities of cities, poverty, class. It’s probably quite ambitious, but you’ve gotta try.
You can buy Life Cycles from Hive here, and help support independent bookshops. Julian will launch the book at Look Mum No Hands at 49 Old Street, London on Thursday 5th June at 7.30pm and all are welcome, join the facebook event here. He will be on tour in the autumn too, so look out for him then!
- I want to ride my bicycle
- Two wheels good: London’s Borisbike cycle hire scheme proves its worth
- Julian Sayarer – round the world on a bike
- Anna Glowinski’s AnaNichoola – Girls Allowed!
- A tribute to the talented illustrator and designer Jayne Helliwell.