To call each thing by its right name…

Some years ago, when I was perhaps 9 or 10 years old, I decided to ride my bike to my grandparent’s house, a couple of miles from my home. Feeling brave, I cycled on the roads, rather than the pavement. The first right turn out of our street went well, the second turn, also a right, was equally smooth, and the first left was a piece of cake. I then had one more right turn before a long straight road to my grandparent’s place. As the junction approached, I became aware that there were cars behind me, and that they were probably going to be overtaking me just when I needed to turn. My 9 or 10 year old mind went blank about what I was supposed to do. I got the first part right, putting my right arm out to signal, but then I didn’t dare look over my shoulder to see if the cars were going to overtake or not, and consequently, I didn’t dare move out to the middle of the road in order to make the turn.

A cold clammy feeling spread through my body, my little left palm sweating on my bmx handle bar, the right one stuck out in a parody of Worzel Gummidge, frozen in place by my own inaction. The junction was upon me, and I had no idea what was going on behind. Still signalling right, I pulled into the left side of the road and stopped, utterly bewildered. The first driver to overtake me shouted something out of the window, and the second one beeped loudly at me, tearing off down the road with an angry surge of speed. When they’d gone, with my skinny legs wobbling and a bright red face, I set off for my grandparents’, not telling them or my folks about my ineptitude, in case they didn’t let me out on my own again. This episode lived with me for many years, and every time I used my bike on a road, the memory of that incident would creep into my thoughts, drying my mouth and making me feel like that child again, even into my early 30’s.

So it was with some effort that a few years ago, I decided to commute to work on my bike. At the time, it was 16 miles one way, half of it on city roads, half of it on cycle paths. The nerves on that first April ride! And for the entirety of that afternoon at work, I felt a growing apprehension at the ride home. But, I did it. And now, over 3 years on, I’m still doing it. I’ve moved house since, and the distance is now only 10 miles one way, but one thing has been a constant on all of those journeys, Georges Lane… A steep, winding, thickly wooded, very (to me) steep hill. The first time I went up it, the only thought I had was of trying to find another route into work! There are other routes, one just as hilly and longer, the other flatter, but a lot longer. So George and me persevered. For the first two weeks, I couldn’t get up the hill without having to get off and push, and for the first two months, I had to stop at the top to catch my breath and push my eyeballs back in. For years I couldn’t get up that hill in anything higher than my lowest gear, but I can now make it to the top without getting up out of the seat – a proud day for me, the first time that happened! Since then, George has kindly stopped forcing my eyeballs out of their sockets, and in return for my efforts, he’s forged my legs into strong (still skinny!) little pistons! It’s thanks in part to this that I’m able to run the distances I do without actually running huge mileage each week. I’ve been injured far less, and generally find the running much easier as a result.

Since reading Robinson Crusoe some years ago, I’ve been more aware of the force of Providence, not in a religious sense, but more the thought that if you throw yourself at something with courage and integrity, Providence will look after the rest. It’s somewhat apt then, that the name of that hill shares its name in part with one of my heroes. I’ve long been fascinated by Antarctica and her stories, those of Shackleton, Mawson and Scott especially. Sat at home one winter, with the weather closing in outside, I was reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. The absolute cold that he describes in the book combined with the storm outside really made me think deeply about what it must feel like. Obviously, I’ll have no real idea until I go and see for myself, but this particular British winter was a cold one, with temperatures dropping to around -14. I’d not long got back from a run, my beard caked in ice and my mouth numb until a hot bath thawed me. So my empathy levels were high as I read about George Simpson. Hailing from the same county as me, Derbyshire, he was the meteorologist on Scott’s 1910 Terra Nova expedition, and one of his primary tasks was to take scientific readings each morning from the instruments on top of the small hill – named by the men as ‘Wind Vane Hill’ – which rose up behind The Hut. This had to be done at 8am every day, and so George was always one of the first up and out – out into that tremendous cold – to take the readings before heading back to The Hut twenty-or-so minutes later. This simple duty perhaps sounds unremarkable on first read, but the thought of being the one who had to do that every day, whatever the weather, and however he was feeling, really struck a chord with me. I made the decision that night, as the storm outside grew louder, to set my alarm a little earlier and go for a run. Six years on and my alarm is still set early.

My body is forged by Georges Lane, and my mind-set by Sir George Clarke Simpson.

I’m curious to know, what have been the influential things in your life that have forged the person you are right now? Leave a comment below and let me know.

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Sir George Clarke Simpson
George Simpson. Photo credit: Herbert Ponting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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