By R J Askew
ST. ALBANS, Feb 2 – I want to escape, I need to escape, but it is always easy to defer the actual moment. There’s a drainpipe to fix. And the kids still need a bit of watching. And so we read-escape.
I started reading Margaret Leigh’s THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW . [http://ow.ly/IIWGW] on a grey Monday morning in November. I had the makings of a cold. Not ideal. I knew nothing of the author and nothing about the story, other than I liked the title and the splash of yellow on the cover. And I like bikes. And there’s a bike on the cover.
Here’s to serendipity, I thought. Here’s to escaping the known knowns in my life.
THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW is delightful reading journey about an actual journey at a mid-point in the author’s life journey. It’s the sort of journey many of us would love to make if only we.. The drainpipe, right? We are too busy, too settled, to dull to get off our comfy backsides to do it. The fact is probably a little less palatable to us, actually. We are probably too fearful to do it. We have too many possessions, too much to do, too much to lose. Too, too, too, too.
Not Margaret Leigh. To be fair though, she has the right background for a cycle ride from London to Greece in search of utopia. She’d already moved around a bit in her life – from three continents – and avoided the usual middle-class career rut, basically by not having a career. A doctorate in church doctrine tells us she was never cut out to rocket through the glass ceiling to prominence in some serious busy-ness.
She is the sort of person who prefers to plough their own furrow, or, more aptly, peddle their own bike. We need such people. Their vague impracticability is a sort of repository of useful genes, in a world where the quest for efficiency kills individuality. Our hopes for a better future are kept alive by such people because they are not afraid to take a risk, to imagine a silly jaunt and just do it – damn it!
Margaret Leigh’s big bike ride is not what you would call a model of hyper-organised efficiency. She hasn’t ridden a bike for decades and she is lugging all kinds of stuff she will never use, but can’t bring herself to ditch. And guess what she does ditch. Her maps. Yes, the maps are gone before she’s got out of Holland.
The great thing about meeting new people, and we do meet Margaret Leigh through her charming little work, is that we learn their little ways. The author has very definite views about Belgium, Italy and dogs, for example. And she is not a purist about her journey. When she feels the need to is ready to resort to the odd train, though this causes her all sorts of problems, principally getting up and down stairs.
So how does she fare? Brilliantly and terrible, in equal measure. She suffers a sinister pursuit by a small black car, a rib-cracking injury, gratuitous insults on the open road, increasing worries over money, 40-degree heat, the threat of savage dogs – especially as she gets closer to her dreamed of utopia. But it is the annoying people she encounters who seem to drain her the most: surly ticket clerks, moronic bank staff back home, insane camp site owners, German tourists who have brought everything with them. Then there’s the snakes, spiders, flies and a pan-handling dog.
That said, she meets some beautiful people, especially when she reaches Greece. She catches their moments of pure joy in their company. Indeed, this is was the key characteristic of THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW for me, the joy the author conveys to us. It starts in Holland, once she’s plucked up courage to pedal forth after being stuck on a pink gin palace with a lugubrious Brit.
She experiences, ‘a growing sense of freedom and joy’ and ‘days of pure joy’ as she warms to being out on the road and alone in her tent at night, close to nature. The rhythm of the journey makes her philosophical, too. ‘There’s something to be said for illusions,’ she says, ‘They protect us for unpleasant realities to come.’ And this on reaching Nice, ‘There’s something unspeakably lonely about cycling in the city. I never once felt lonely in the countryside.’
Her internal compass directs her ever southwards until she reaches Greece, where a native say as she looks out over an idyllic bay, ‘see, even the fish are happy here.’ By the time she reaches Greece she is at times blissfully happy as she peddled among lonely mountains where her only companions ‘were eagles.’
Yet not everything is perfect. She records the ugly blistering that tourism causes. And there are those damned Greek dogs – definitely not pets – vicious farm dogs. But even one of her worst encounters produces a moment of ‘quite extraordinary grace, of providence.’
And then this, as some instinct draws her ever on to her utopia, ‘There was no feeling quite like the one that came from free-wheeling down a gentle slope, wind in my hair, and not a care in the world.’ Marvellous! If we close our eyes and concentrate for a moment, we can feel it, too, if we have it in us to.
And so to Methoni – utopia – a place without even an artichoke festival to roll one’s socks up and down. And a camp site ‘unhygienic enough to deter Germans.’ Sauce! But we know what she means. You can be too hygienic.
The author is in ‘the land of doves cooing’ – even if she can barely afford to eat and she’s its furnace hot. Sparrows feed from her hand.
But this is Greece, land of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, tragedy and there is a minor tragedy in THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW. Perhaps it is the nature of all Utopias, all escapes to a better place and a better time. Ach, the human condition!
You will have to read THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW to learn the significance of its winning title – a title which sort of put its arm around my shoulder and whispered ‘read me’ into my ear. May it do the same for you.
See all THE WRONG SHADE OF YELLOW’s reviews here: http://ow.ly/IIWGW