Over the last few years, I’ve written articles and essays on topics ranging from adventure travel and running, to politics, social justice and health. My work has featured in The Guardian, The Telegraph, the BBC, CNN, Geographical, Adventure Travel, Backpacker, Wild, Action Asia, Outer Edge and Cycle among others. I’ve contributed to books – The Kindness of Strangers: Travel Stories That Make Your Heart Grow and The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook. I have won a few travel writing contests (Pure Travel, Just Back and We Said Go. Highly Commended in Bradt). I also write the odd bit of humour and post it to Medium or my blog, especially if nobody thinks it’s funny enough to pay me for.
Are you into speed dating? No?
I imagine that’s for one of three reasons. One: you’re smugly paired up, hooray for you. Two: it’s not 2003. Three: you envisage two hours of bumbling small talk and then leaving so dismayed by the whole experience that you’ll immediately slash your standards and date people three decades older than you, with a wardrobe gathered from charity bins and Marmite stains on both their t-shirts.
Obviously, speed dating will involve meeting someone called Zenith / Zenitha. Their special interest, if they were on mastermind, would be parasites. They’ll make this clear. They will bring their own stopwatch to the speed dating ‘don’t want to overstep the mark!’ they’ll quip, and then laugh like the sound of an old sheepdog dying.
On 8 January this year, a Wednesday, my A&E department in central London was its typical, swirling self. The waiting room brimming, the paramedics backed up. On a quieter day, I might have noticed an article in the British Medical Journal about a cluster of patients with a new pneumonia in Wuhan. Ten weeks later, when the Army unloaded a consignment of surgical masks to the forecourt of our hospital, even A&E doctors like me, for whom workaday life is used to calamity, felt blindsided by the nature of things.
A year before that BMJ piece, almost to the day, Theresa May and NHS CEO Simon Stevens announced the details of the NHS 10-year plan at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. Military support wasn’t included.
In this great upset, 10-year plans will naturally be realigned, but already I have seen gargantuan efforts within the NHS to adapt. Something entirely awesome — there is no other word — has happened to my workplace. The hospital restructured, reinvented itself. A&E segregated. Intensive care capacity expanded threefold and wards were given over to the breathless. Staff were redeployed to areas of greatest need, and our working lives were reconfigured — speciality training scratched, rotas upturned. We embraced the earthquake, mostly with pride and a sense of duty. This was what we’d been trained for.
Like most decisions of great consequence, my plan to cycle around the world was settled in a pub, pint in one hand, mini-atlas in the other.
I’d finished work on the renal unit in Guy’s Hospital. That Friday feeling had perked up the streets outside, and Londoners were pouring out of offices, making little eddies of people in beer gardens. I joined them, and sat on a wooden bench outside the George pub amid a small band of my closest friends. I had a plan to pitch.
I opened my mini-atlas on a double page spread of the world, put my pen to London and gazed significantly around the table. ‘I reckon it’ll take about six years by bike’ I said. ‘You know, give or take.’ And with that, I was off: my pen skittering across roadless hunks of Sahara, over white and blue hoists of mountain, through jungles stocked with unwholesome parasites and toothsome fauna that there was definitely no need to mention at this stage. With a little flick of the wrist I winged it, unscathed, through the Darien Gap. Someone muttered something about war lords and drug cartels but I swiped at their fears with my pint-hand, dripping lager on Mexico, and I was soon merrily skidding about Alaskan tundra. In less than a minute I’d breezed back to London where, like a cross between Marco Polo and Gandalf in Spandex, I’d fondle my rambling beard and lapse into a thousand-yard stare.
My mum loves Levison Wood.
In case you’ve been on hiatus from our star system, Levison is an adventurer. Channel 4 follow him about as he does venturesome things.
‘He’s such an adventurous guy’ my mum says.
‘Mum’ I begin, steadily. ‘I’ve been cycling around the world for six years.’
‘I know, I know darling’ she says, before lapsing into a reverie.
‘But Lev is so handsome, isn’t he?’
On first consideration it seems surprising that people still die when cycling the Bolivia’s North Yungas Road, more eagerly referred to as El Camino de la Muerte or ‘The Death Road’. If a person were going to be cautious, I reason, surely it would be a place in which ‘Death’ is half the title. But as I sit astride my bicycle, teeth chattering in the sub-zero bite of 4700 meters above sea level – the start of this revered freewheel – I change my mind.
The name is an invitation to push the boundaries of good sense and later bath in the glory of having nearly died, but not.
Next week Britain’s junior doctors will stage a full walkout for the first time in the history of the NHS. It would be disingenuous to deny this will have consequences for trust. Accusations are already flying that junior doctors, blind to the corrosive power of mistrust, are prepared to trade their patients’ belief in them for self-interest. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have never seen my A&E department so still, so well-staffed and so uncannily calm. Usually, it’s a frenzy of swishing bodies as paramedics deliver new patients into a soundscape of PA announcements, bleeps and phone referrals. But this week, the “shop floor”, as we like to call it, is eerily quiet. Attendances in A&E departments across the country are down, in some cases by up to 80%.
We run simulations now, pounding down on the plastic chests of dummies, or click through e-learning modules. It feels a little like we have passed into the eye of the storm.
There were times, as I cycled through China, that I was a treat to behold.
Old men as stooped and attentive as surgeons around marathon games of Mahjong peered up to find me bearing down on them, apocalyptically: a huffing and hirsute creature, in sweat-slicked spandex, making antenatal noises.
But sitting aside my touring bicycle one evening, in the outskirts of Yangshuo, I was feeling cheerfully vindicated. A bus had parked and avalanched tourists to the pavement. They clomped around the roadside with bent backs and knitted brows, resuscitating dead legs. I began to wonder if the coming months would involve a full body cast, an orthopaedic surgeon and the words ‘I’m so sorry Derek, there’s just not much more we can do for you now.’
Cycling was easier. Exhausted or not, I had leg space. I had wind-thrown air and whole metres to the armpits of strangers. No glass incarcerated me.
Something strange was afoot. Soon you could feel it in the streets, and in the hospital coridors, but it was apparent, at first, in the questions I was asking my patients. There was a new question now, an outlying question; one of those questions that muscle into medical histories from time to time, a question of the moment, pressing up against the same old questions doctors have been asking their patients for centuries. Do you have a fever? Are you coughing? And then, my tone acutely serious, I’d hone in: And have you travelled to Wuhan?
Did you dream, during those early days of the pandemic? My dreams were unsettling and vivid, the mind’s revolt in a world so new, and upset. Writing, I found, was cathartic, a useful tool to settle my thoughts, to bring order and sense to things. Writing corralled those fears that run wild otherwise, rampaging through the quiet hours. Writing lent life a sense of reality too, during what was, and perhaps will always be, the most surreal time that I’ve been alive.
How is it that events that are guarded by qualifying times almost dare you to race? The Armagh 5K is a case in point: a small, hard-to-reach town in Northern Ireland, that hosts a measly midweek 5K in February. I live in London, so Armagh involves crossing the Irish Sea. It costs real money to get there. Do I need a 5K PB that bad? Then a teammate reminds me that I’ve qualified, so I have to. “It’s Armagh,” he says, flatly, as if that should clinch it.