A Beautiful Form of Self-Torture


I pulled out of the small forecourt in front of Cheltenham’s Triumph garage. It was an unremarkable Gloucestershire summer’s morning and the daily commute was lethargically drifting past in front of me. Turning left at the lights, the road ahead was relatively empty. I couldn’t resist it; I was in a 30mph zone, but I had to give the throttle a tweak. Two seconds later I glanced down at the digital speedo and saw the number rapidly rising to fifty-something. Easy, Tiger – keep in under wraps until I’m out of town.

imageThis particular Tiger carrying me towards three points on my licence was Triumph’s 1200cc Explorer. My Tiger 800 was in for a service and I had some time to kill. So I decided to indulge in a pastime favoured by many a motoquero – test-riding bikes which sit well outside both the practical needs and the budget of the rider. This one was a beauty. Every Triumph triple cylinder engine is a joy to ride, but with the 1200 pushing out 138 horsepower, I was hooked immediately. And despite being fifty kilograms heavier than my 800, it felt far more agile and balanced on the twisty backroads.

I didn’t plot a route on which to test the bike; I just followed my nose through the villages and roads north of Cheltenham. However, whilst I may not have had a plan, some unseen force must have. I found myself a few hundred metres from the KTM garage in Tewkesbury. If there is one machine out there that could potentially trump the Explorer in my books, it is KTM’s 1190. Twenty-odd kilograms lighter and twelve horsepower more powerful, this thing is a super-bike squeezed into an adventure-bike chassis. You can guess what came next.

Whilst the Tiger purrs, the 1190 growls. If the Triumph is a a well-mannered thoroughbred, the KTM is a ill-tempered, untrained stallion, the bad boy amongst the stable of big-bore adventure bikes. I rode it for an hour or so and I loved it. Both are way too powerful for what I would need as an all-rounder on the UK roads, and I’d place a heavy bet on me losing my licence within six months of riding one. Yet I yearned to own one of these bikes. Common sense and reason were lost in the adrenalin rush: I even managed to convince myself that fourteen grand wasn’t that much.

It was in that moment that I realised what I was doing to myself. This was a subtle form of self-torture, albeit wrapped in a cloak of beauty – the lines of the machine, the sense of freedom and connection with the environment, the thrill of the ride. Whilst in the saddle, the rider is caught up in the immediacy and joy of it all. But when he returns to the showroom and hands back the keys, the doors behind which lust and greed hide are kicked wide open. The pleasure insidiously turns to pain, as we dream in vein of all those machines we crave so much filling our imaginary garage.

IMG_4328Over the last few weeks, I have travelled many miles around UK visiting friends and their young families. On every occasion without exception, my bike has delighted the sons and daughters of these friends. Every one of them, including my six-year-old god-daughter, insisted on climbing aboard and donning my helmet and gloves. There is something intangible about motorbikes which thrills us. They are more than just the frame, engine, lights and wheels – the physical machine. A motorbike has a soul and possess a magnetic field. It draws men and women to ride them, and children to sit atop them and fall under this invisible spell.

Yet when the children’s feet return to the gravel, they walk away with a sense of thrill and wonder and nothing more. They don’t lust after this inanimate object, they don’t crave what the can’t have. They don’t mentally construct an imaginary world in which these machines are a part. Yet we adults do. For us, the pure, unadulterated experience of this magic, which the youngsters take in their stride, is contaminated.

Less than five weeks ago, I was in Peru – a place which had helped me, probably forced me in fact, to recast my perception of money: of ownership and value; of necessity versus luxury; of the developed world’s perverse propensity for retail therapy and its undiagnosed addiction to consumerism. Yet here I was, sitting atop a £14,000 motorcycle and singing merrily along to exactly the same tune. I was caught in the tractor-beam of materialism.

Embedded in the British Army’s training culture is what we call ‘the lessons learnt process’. It involves a critical analysis of an activity after it has been completed, in order to find what went well and what could be improved. It facilitates positive change, improvement. The more astute proponents of this process recognise that it is, in fact, mis-named: is should be called the ‘lessons identified process’, for until the change is put into practice it has not been learnt. In Peru, I have recognised western societies’ obsession with financial gain and status. I’ve certainly identified the lesson, but it seems I’m yet to learn it.

We shouldn’t expect changing our perspective on money and possessions to be an easy process. Relentless and often subliminal advertising, the ever-growing culture of celebrity, and dare I say it the deliberate strategies of banks and large corporations have conditioned and programmed us thus. Maybe it is therefore wrong to call it ‘self-torture’, as we are not doing it to ourselves. But we cannot and must not resign ourselves to the status of victim; we must take responsibility for the way we see the world and the way we live.

On this trip back to UK – my third since setting off on my travels nearly two years ago – the suffering this money-obsession causes has been much more apparent. A lot of people back here are not happy. That is obvious to me. However, because they have set their metric for success as money and ownership of ‘stuff’, some think they are. I’ve seen happiness in the absence of wealth amongst the mountain folk of the Andes; you don’t find it much on the streets of London.

I’ve enjoyed returning to UK to see my family and friends, but being back here feels less natural now after so long away. I miss the simple life on the road or in the villages of Peru, where the heavy blanket of wealth-obsession and money-dependency falls much more lightly. If I’m honest with myself, coming home has shown that I can still wear that blanket easily. I need to get back across the Atlantic and get back to school; I still have more to learn.

16 Comments on A Beautiful Form of Self-Torture

  1. Pitch, I felt exactly the same on returning from Sierra Leone in 2000. The experiences there were the catalyst for the intermittent study of Eastern philosophies and Buddhism that has lasted ever since. I guess what matters is what purpose do material things serve in one’s life, what is it we consciously or unconsciously expect of the things we buy. Answering these questions honestly and accurately requires a degree of integrity and self-knowledge that few possess, including myself. I hope that your journey takes you further and faster than me. H

  2. Well said, I couldn’t agree more, we are under constant manipulation from unseen marketing teams, wanting us to aspire to their stuff. And under no pressure to appreciate the things that are actually the important part of being happy. Because there’s no profit in it. Chatting with friends in the shade of a tree, seeing the sun rise over some of the world. This is to strive for.

  3. Hi Paul – a great reminder of the simplicity and clarity that often comes when you ride a motorbike. I’ve found the clarity of thought and focus, along with an appreciation of the simple things in life that come on and after a bike ride is therapeutic and refreshing – thanks for reminding me of the simple things in life and the fact I’m responsible for my own happiness.

  4. Once again a fantastic post about how we are living our life’s thinking we have freedom but we are enslaved to our jobs that we hate just to earn money to buy things that we think will make us happy. Not to mention the obsession with social media, celebs and the sort. I live in Los Angeles and the news often are more focused on famous people than the real issues with REAL people involved. Sad really if you ask me. Anyways, Paul, really great thoughts, keep it up…your honest, down to earth, no BS writing style is always fun to read and also informative with the sense of inspiration.

  5. Another good post Paul. To take it to the n’th degree, would you be prepared to give up all your possessions other than those you can easily carry on one motorcycle? That would be a very different ball game and perhaps a whole new ‘sense of freedom’?

    • Scott, riding for 20-odd months has genuinely taught me that I need no more than what I carry on the moto, and I love the simplicity of such a lifestyle. I guess one day I will put roots down again, so I wouldn’t sell EVERYTHING right now, but I am sure that if and when I do set up camp again, the majority of what I have in store will be on eBay.

  6. Great post again, Paul. A line from a movie I once saw which for me hit me like a hammer. ” Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off. You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. – Fight Club (1999)

  7. Great quote, Jase – love it. I could have posted that and nothing more!

    Did the Adventure Travel Film Fest last weekend – now super enthused to up my video game now. Off to the States in Sep so I think I’ll blow some of my savings on a DSLR and some good audio gear. Maybe a collaboration mini doc on Dakar 2015?? (but still not sure I’ll be there!!)

    • If you’re going to get a DSLR take my advice and get a sensor cleaning kit, you’ll thank me for it. I’ve lost count of the amount of shots that have been ruined due to dust getting onto the sensor when I change lenses, no manner how careful I swop them. Dust on the sensor is not as detrimental If you are shooting stills as you can get rid of It in post using a program like Photoshop but for filming It can be very hard If not impossible to remove afterwards.

  8. Thoroughly absorbed by your post Paul. I think we too are learning from the same lesson. I look at our friends back home, whom for the most part are happy with their lot but for others are miserable without realising it. Wanting more money for a better standard of living whilst already living in a five bed house in a rural village. Downsize and achieve that desire! But it runs deeper than that…

    I’m not sure what the pair of us will end up doing after riding the Americas, where we’ll put down roots. It’s not important to have answers to these right now. Things have a habit of panning out, one way or another.

    Glad all’s well in your corner of the world, how’s Pau?


    • You’ll probably end up buying a piece of land next door to me in Peru and building a house! And I’m not joking…. Buying spares for the moto and starting to look forward to flying back to Lima in a fortnight. Pau’s just arrived in California, to start replenishing her travel funds! All good with us both. Looks like the same applies to you two having read your posts.

  9. Would be great to meet up for the Dakar in 2015. Just been to the hand in the desert in Chile, flew the Quadcopter over it at first light got some mind bending footage, it was beautiful. Too much to see with so little time.

    • Plenty of time, man, if you want it – though sadly we all have to work how to fund that time. Money may be an evil, but is is also a necessity. Writing and video-making seems like a good profession, mind you!!

  10. Just perfect remaks, we all have to keep on learning, South America is waiting, and we are here if you need anything. Best regards

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