Not Your Favourite Subject

12th February 2023 |


Last Sunday I joined a small group of bike riders on Zoom to talk about depression, not everyone’s favourite subject but a difficult one to ignore. I met with Eva Strehler, who is translating my latest book into German, and Claudio Gnypek, who was recording the meeting for a podcast, but the main man was Dieter Schneider. Dieter is in his youthful sixties but he had a son who suffered from depression and committed suicide, an unimaginable tragedy no less awful for being one of many thousands.

He found he couldn’t simply accept it. He felt he had to do something, and after long journeys looking for a solution he appealed to his friends to join him in a ride, to focus attention on the problem. He discovered, of course, that he was far from alone, and his ride is now a regular thing with hundreds of bikers taking part. He thinks of it as a fellowship and calls it the Fellows Ride. There is even a film going the rounds in Germany.

I have never been depressive and like most people, however deep in the dumps I might be, I can generally find pleasure in just being alive. But in my early life there were aspects of my personality that I did find depressing. I was self-conscious to a fault, convinced that I was always being judged and found wanting. I went to unnecessary lengths to please, and I was timid in the face of authority. I rehearsed all my important meetings ahead of time and never really learned to think on my feet. I was quite aware of all this and it sickened me, but I couldn’t overcome it. I relied almost entirely on my intelligence to make progress in life.

My big journey, the one that crystalised out as Jupiter’s Travels, changed all that, even though the change was totally unexpected. It never crossed my mind that the journey would have any effect on me. I was driven by curiosity, not self-improvement, and yet the effect it did have on me was life-changing. I have spent a good deal of time since trying to extract from the experience the elements that brought this about and released me from my earlier inhibitions.

First of all, I was alone, with nobody to judge me or help me or take over. I was on a machine that I had only recently learned to manage, and only in quite easy circumstances. I knew that, as a novice, I was in danger and that the danger would increase as I moved into ever more unfamiliar surroundings. Inevitably there was always a degree of fear to overcome, and I found a way to work with it and learn from it.

Then there was the machine itself. I had only basic mechanical knowledge, a few tools and a workshop manual. I had to keep it going, meaning I had to learn about it, be aware of it all the time, check it out every night looking for problems. It was all I had for the next 50,000 miles.

The travelling itself was demanding; finding shelter and food, managing currencies and borders, learning the rudiments of languages, learning how to avoid accidents, and of course keeping notes of everything. And to balance against all this drudgery was the sheer excitement of it all and, at first, the wonder that I was actually able to make it all work, that it was really me here in the desert where I once as a child read about Rommel’s Afrika Korps battling with Montgomery.

There was no time or reason to think about I how looked; I was unique, a traveller on a motorcycle, a phenomenon and I set the standard. Who would care how I was dressed, whether I was clean or dirty, shaven or bearded. So I soon forgot about myself and found that I could see others much more clearly. And all those hours alone with myself inside my helmet? They were busy with thoughts about what I had seen and what lay ahead, people I had met, the scene I was passing by and how I would describe it.

What I am trying to demonstrate is that I was so physically and mentally stretched by the enterprise that there was no room for negative thoughts about the meaning of life. I am convinced that by being voluntarily exposed to great physical and mental effort I defeated my old mindset.

I am afraid this may all sound naïve and boastful. Would it be impossible for someone suffering from clinical depression to launch themselves into such a project? I don’t know. But I have had letters (via email) from people thanking me, profusely, for helping them fight off depression simply through reading my book.

Is there a way . . .?