Three Continents, Two Films, One Book, And A Failed Expedition – My 2015 In Review

31st December 2014. I hand over the keys to my landlord, sling my worldly possessions over my shoulder, and walk through the streets of Bristol to the railway station, bound for London. Any year that begins with becoming homeless, I think, is destined to be memorable.

This evening, I will gatecrash two house parties, stay up all night, and drink too much mulled wine (fortified with brandy, I will later discover, which explains much). I will then collect sufficient initiative to stagger – still carrying said worldly possessions – from West Hampstead across London to Paddington, whereupon I will collect my bike from where I locked it the previous evening (I will logically deduce this in the absence of any memory), and stumble aboard the correct early-morning train to Heathrow in time to fall asleep in a toilet cubicle, wake up wondering where I am, then check in and catch the 8:30am flight to Sydney.

So began my 2015. (From what I can recall.)

The plan for the year was simple. My wife and I had spent several years living in the UK at the behest of bureaucrats. Finally liberated, we would ditch all semblance of stability (again) and become modern-day nomads, travelling from place to place for at least a year in order see what new direction emerged – if any – for our lives. She was already in Australia, staying with her sister. I was going to join her.

I also had a couple of creative projects simmering away, though I wasn’t sure what would come of them.

Well, 2015 is almost over. So the time has come to look back at what has unfolded from that moment.

The Year In Review – An Annual Practice

Reviewing the successes and failures of the year is a habit I’ve got into, and I’ve found it a rewarding and often eye-opening thing to do. I suggest you try it.

It doesn’t strictly have to be done at the end of a Gregorian calendar year, but since most of us are taking time off for festivities, there’s a natural window here in which to do it.

A successful and worthwhile review does rely on being honest and transparent with yourself, for only by doing so can you face your mistakes and learn from them. You need not publish the results; that’s just me; the rewards of doing it purely for yourself are just as great.

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My review begins with two simple questions:

What Went Well This Year?

The aim of this question is not self-congratulation (though there is nothing wrong with reminding yourself what you are capable of), but identifying what success has meant to you, and digging out some of the things that have contributed to it.

In overall terms, the most resounding success this year was the nomadic lifestyle experiment I kicked off on New Year’s Day. Together and separately as work and projects dictated, my wife Tenny and I have lived on three continents and in more dwellings than I care to recall, and refined our version of minimalism until our material needs were never more than we could carry with us on public transport.

Sure, there were some low points (sleeping in an old factory in Leytonstone for a month isn’t something I’ll rush to repeat, nor camping in the woods on Hampstead Heath), but the effect of being so mobile and not being tied to a physical ‘home’ has been to get to know places and people far better than we ever did when living in a single location, when the temptation to stay at home and postpone exploration indefinitely was always there. It’s been a lot more fun, and – strangely – a heck of a lot cheaper.

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In terms of work, the big success of 2015 was the Kickstarter campaign, A Tale Of Two Rivers, that I designed and launched together with Leon McCarron in order to fundraise for production of two documentaries we’d shot on spec in 2014 (by far the most affordable part of making an adventure film). Hastily drafted and with a launch video made in the back garden of the Royal Geographical Society, we pressed the big red button and launched our dream into the world, with the clock ticking over an impossibly short funding window, no backup plan, and little hope of succeeding.

Just 14 days later, however, we’d raised an astonishing (even now it’s still difficult to believe) £26,329 – a meagre budget in film and TV terms, but enough to produce the two films to a standard that matched our expectations and ambitions. The films are now finished and delivered to 662 happy backers; the first has also been released to the public, with the second to follow next year. (Best of all, we’re only about £3,000 over budget!)

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Karun has been a very successful exercise in collaboration, something I’ve never been particularly good at. We gave directorial responsibility to Rhys Thwaites-Jones, a freelance producer-director I’ve been wanting to work with for years, and were able to give him the financial resources to do the job properly, hiring a talented editor, commissioning original and authentic music for the film, and hiring various specialists to give the final cut a proper polish.

Most important is that the project has been a source of meaningful and rewarding creative work for all involved, and I feel glad that we we’ve been able to provide that.

In terms of creative development, our second film – The Last Explorers On The Rio Santa Cruz – has been the first feature-length documentary on which I’ve been responsible for directing every aspect of the production, from the development of the concept to the shoot itself, the bulk of the editing, the scriptwriting, and the overseeing of the post-production. I felt unprepared, nervous and out of my depth for the majority of the project, but I saw it through to completion, learning a vast amount along the way. The resulting film is one on which I’m able to say I did the best job I could.

Again, more importantly, I have been acutely aware throughout that because the film is primarily Leon’s story, I carry a huge responsibility to tell it in a way that represents his character, his words and the values he expresses fairly, and to ensure that the film as a whole is one of he is happy to be the frontman. Sensitivity not being my strongest point, this feels like a personal success as well as a creative one.

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Financially speaking, 2015 is the first year in which I’ve been able to sleep easy more or less every night without the financial woes that have plagued the last few years of my life. This has had less to do with increasing my earnings – the demands of the two films, both passion projects rather than income generators, have made sure of that – and more to do with reducing my liabilities.

The biggest of these by far, it turned out, was simply putting a roof over our heads. I remain staggered at the cost in the UK of providing for this basic human need – in London, it was reported this year, tenants now pour an absurd 72% of their take-home pay into the pockets of the small group of people who hold the title deeds to the city – and feel glad that by opting out I have discovered (out of necessity) a whole world of alternatives.

There is still a long way to go before I have any working capital to invest in things I’d like to see happen. But as I’m discovering, there are other sources of funding than simply what you can earn by selling your time for cash…

As a writer, I pledged at the start of 2015 that I would write two new books this year, and launch a brand new blog alongside my long-standing cycle touring outlet TomsBikeTrip.com. Success! – a new and very niche ebook on choosing a touring bike for long-term travel is out now, and a much more general guide to cycling adventures will out next year through a very exciting partnership with a well-known publishing brand.

As for the new blog, well – you’re reading it.

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The most unexpectedly successful venture of the year, though, has been my partnership with Richard at Oxford Bike Works. As a result of a wild idea I had last year while cycling across Central Europe, we put our heads and hands together and designed, prototyped and tested a new British-built expedition touring bike based on all my cycle touring experience and everything he knew about building bikes. Then, in February, we launched it.

Richard has been building several Expedition bikes a month ever since, alongside his other models. While we’re not aiming to become market leaders (he has a maximum capacity of 12 bikes a month in his schedule, and won’t sell you one at all unless you come to his workshop to get properly sized up), there are now a growing number of OBW Expedition Bikes making their way round the planet. Renée, for example, has just arrived in Istanbul, while James has already returned from a 10,000-mile trip around Europe; among other testimonials that will only strengthen Richard’s (and the bike’s) reputation and help us make it even better.

More than anything else, I think, the satisfaction here comes from knowing that all those miles I pedalled, all those bikes I built, broke and rebuilt, and all that pondering I did on the topic of what a bike for an open-ended trip really needs to do and be – all that has actually come to something tangible, and of real benefit to other riders setting off on long and doubtless life-changing journeys of their own.

What Didn’t Go Well This Year?

In a year of successes, it’s even more important to take stock of the failures; especially in a social environment increasingly distorted by all the attention-seeking and image-crafting that trickles through our lives through our laptops and smartphones.

The biggest failure of the year was my plan to walk the length of Armenia. After arriving in the country in the summer, I was swept up by a volunteering project for several weeks; one that I never meant to get involved with but had immense fun doing. Downscaling my plans to walk across Nagorno-Karabakh, I then made a hash of that by saying ‘yes’ to everyone else who wanted to come along.

The result was that I trekked – with a variety of unlikely people and animals in tow – just over half of the already shrunken route that I’d planned, before running out of time altogether and having to jet back to England for another month of editing. (The journey was unusual and interesting, and I do still intend to write a short blog series about it.)

The reasons for what happened were numerous, but chief among them were that I hadn’t given myself enough time off after the intensive process of film editing during the spring. Really, the last thing I wanted was to feel accountable to yet another distant objective like ‘walking the length of Armenia solo’. Letting the summer play out spontaneously was, in fact, exactly what I needed. So in a way, the flaw lay in the plans, rather than the execution, which was still a heck of a lot of fun.

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Luckily, this whole process has led in a roundabout way to the unexpected success of finding my next calling – which has resulted in a new project entirely different to anything I’ve attempted before, and one I’ve been promising to disclose on this blog for weeks now.

(It’s coming in the very next post! Promise!)

Another failure was my goal of reading 52 books in 52 weeks. I knew this was ambitious. All was going well until I returned to London from Australia and the reality of being homeless while simultaneously running a Kickstarter campaign and preparing for a film production meant that sitting in a cosy corner to read a book got pushed down the priority list.

I’ve managed to claw it back a little in recent weeks, but my total now stands at a measly 18 books read this year. Seen another way, of course, that’s about 18 more books than I read in 2014, so the target has in fact achieved its real aim – to get me reading again. (Also, some of those 18 books were pretty heavy going.)

You might be surprised to hear that I would count the Karun project as a partial failure. Don’t get me wrong, the trip itself was absolutely brilliant – fun, eye-opening, challenging, wonderfully unpredictable; the very essence of the kind of approach to adventurous travel that I want to be part of. But the footage we returned with was lacking in many other ways. Specifically, I’d wanted to capture as many of the cultural encounters as possible, yet what we ended up with in the raw material was a handful of sparsely-covered anecdotes which were mainly recounted in retrospect. I’d also (naively) wanted to express my love for the nation and its people, only to find that with a command of the language, plus a couple of unfortunate incidents, we ended up with a strange double-image – the overbearing authorities on one side (made worse in many ways by being able to talk to them), and the heart-rendingly warm and hospitable people on the other.

Now the film is released, another failing of the project has become apparent, which relates to the first and biggest question people have at the end of the film: why are there no women in it? It’s actually very simple: we didn’t meet any. Less simple is the acceptance that this is just the way it is when you travel in rural and conservative parts of Iran – that’s too big a leap for the Western audience to make. Additionally, a healthy dose of preconceptions makes it too easy for too many women to assume that this means the trip such as this must be impossible for them. It totally is not.

Trying to explain all of this in the film itself wouldn’t work – there’s nothing in the story or raw material we could use to make it relevant, which means it’s destined to remain a well-practiced Q&A question. The real failing was in the initial decision for two blokes to make this journey. Far wiser a move – resulting in a significantly more insightful film for about 50% of its eventual audience, and probably a stronger story overall – would have been to do the trip as a male-female couple.

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My second ebook on the topic of choosing a bike for an epic cycling adventure has been well-received by those who have read it, but a relative flop in terms of financial contribution to my upkeep because hardly any copies have actually been sold.

Looking back, I rushed to get it finished and released, and consequently didn’t put much thought into how it was positioned or marketed. Nor did I do a particularly good job of explaining what problem the book was intended to solve, or how it would benefit readers in solving it. Releasing such a book in June – when everyone who was going to buy a bike has already got one and is probably riding it already – was also probably not the best move.

Digital books being what they are, of course, there’s always the option of revising and relaunching it next year in a more timely fashion and a more useful format – i.e. learning from my mistakes.

Finally, on the creative front, I still haven’t made a dent in my next travel book, though there are a few thousand words in a burgeoning manuscript. I also have two other informational ebooks in various stages of writing, and ideas for the writing of at least two more – as well as constantly musing about the possibility of making another two films, three video training courses, and two big new creative ideas that have nothing to do with films or books at all. Phew.

The laws of physics dictate that it will be impossible for me to make all of these ideas reality, yet I often flounder from one to the next without being able to choose and focus – a creative person’s version of FOMO (fear of missing out), perhaps, which still needs addressing.

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Next Steps

As mentioned, the main beneficiary of an annual review is the person doing it.

So, for example, while you may have found this article interesting to read, it’s the full day I’ve spent thinking through and writing it (I’ve been at this since 6am – it’s now 3pm) that’s really the point of the exercise.

As Alan Bennett put it in The Lady In The Van (the film of which I saw last night – highly recommended), “you don’t put yourself into writing; you find yourself in it”. That’s always been true, and never so much as on a topic that demands this much clear-mindedness and introspection.

So I’ll have lots to think about as Tenny and I leave the UK once more at the end of the year for a second visit to Sydney – although I think I’ll give the pre-flight binge drinking session a miss this year…

In the next post, I’ll be looking ahead to 2016. Check back next week for that – and in the meantime, if you fancy giving this a try yourself, set a few hours aside and start with the two simple questions above…

(Selected photo credits: Rhys Thwaites-Jones, Leon McCarron, Jose Argento and Thierry Bussy.)