George Mahood is the sort of chap you'd like to have a beer with. Actually, I think he's the kind of fellow you'd find yourself buying a beer for after just the briefest of conversations. I say this having never met the man but I feel like I've just had the adventure of a lifetime with my new pal after having read his very funny and surprisingly inspirational book Free Country.
Free Country tells the true story of two young men, George and his friend Ben, who decide to cycle the length of Britain from Land's End to John O Groats. While this ambitious journey has been undertaken by many others, none have done it in quite the same way as George and Ben. Because, you see, they begin with nothing. Well, not quite nothing, they each have a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts (and George later confesses, a camera, a notebook, a pencil and stack of cards containing the words "I am OFFICIALLY a very nice person.")
Over three weeks in September, with a vow to spend no money, they wander their way north like the maddest of monks on the most quixotic of quests. What they find along the way is a country filled with very interesting people, a great number of whom are very nice. Ben and George manage, through charm, wit, fast talking and willingness to do tasks ranging from cleaning, to loading onions, to singing for their suppers, to acquire clothes, food, bicycles and someplace to sleep every night. It is a wonderful adventure and very, very funny. George is a great observer of life and a very witty writer and he and Ben bicker throughout the journey in the way that only true friends can. A few quotes will give you the flavor of this delightful book:
‘Yeah. There’s a place called Neilston in another ten miles.’ ‘Ten miles? Are you kidding me?’ asked Ben. ‘Err, no. It doesn’t look like there’s anything else before there anyway. We’ve done really well today. I reckon we’ll have done over 90 miles.’ ‘WHAT? My god, you are such a slave driver. If I’d known we had done anything near that much, I would have stopped for the day ages ago.’ ‘I know. That’s why I didn’t tell you.’
Before eating the sandwiches we tried a rendition of Silent Night in German that I could still remember from primary school. A guy on a bmx, in his mid thirties, approached with a small paper bag from Greggs. ‘Hi guys. You can have these two donuts if you promise to stop singing.’ ‘You’ve got yourself a deal. Thanks, mate,’ I said.
The descent from Kirkstone Pass was undoubtedly the fastest I have ever been on a bike. It was possibly the fastest that man has ever travelled, in any form of transport. If The Falcon had had wings, I swear she would have taken off. It was one of the scariest, but most exhilarating things I have ever done. Braking wasn’t really an option for me, as The Falcon’s brakes only had any slight effect when travelling at a ridiculously slow speed, or uphill. I just gave in and let The Falcon do what she was best at doing - not stopping.
We explained our challenge and asked if there was anything we could do in exchange for some free food. ‘Oooooh, what do you reckon, Jan? Should we give these two strapping young lads any food?’ she said to her colleague. ‘Yeah, why not. If that one with the skimpy shorts shows us a bit more leg,’ she laughed. ‘That’ll be you then, George,’ said Ben. This was a new low. I was being made to flaunt my body in exchange for food. I felt used. I felt cheap. I liked it. I lifted up the side of my skimpy blue shorts, and exposed my flabby white thighs. ‘Phwoooooaarr,’ said both ladies...
If a nutritionist had analysed what we ate during the bike ride, I think they probably would have concluded that we should not be alive, let alone fit enough to cycle. I read somewhere that beige food is bad for you. Almost everything we ate was a shade of beige; bread, pasta bakes, chips, pasties and bananas. Anyway, all I’m saying is that peas and carrots taste unbelievable if you only eat beige food for 17 days beforehand. Give it a try.
Free Country is one of the funniest books I've ever read and it is a book that celebrates the tremendous kindness that exists in the world. George and Ben completed their journey thanks to the kindness of strangers, but after reading the tale of their journey, I feel that I owe them much more than the meager cost of this book for the laughter and wisdom I've found in its pages. George and Ben, if you ever make it to Issaquah, look me up. I'll make sure you've got a good meal and a place to stay.