Swimterview: Alastair Humphreys
Inspired by Laurie Lee, Alastair Humphreys busked his way across Spain. The resulting book became a personal memoir of a life lived adventurously. Ella Foote met Alastair for a swim and impromptu concert
‘Don’t forget your violin’, I typed into a text message. I was heading to Kent, it was a very wet Monday morning and the last thing I wanted to do was tackle the M25. The South East experienced over a month’s worth of rain in just one day that Monday, but it seemed silly to cancel as we were going to get wet anyway.
I was meeting adventurer and author Alastair Humphreys for a dip in the River Medway near Tonbridge in Kent. I drove across the river and looked over the bridge – it looked a good swim spot. I parked and Al hopped out of his car with a giant umbrella and arms open – what a welcome! In typical British fashion we chatted about the weather as we looked upstream for potential entry points. Al favoured a spot beside a “great” tree; if you follow Al on social media it will be no surprise that the trees were his markers.
As a result of our exchanges on social media we already felt as if we knew each other and the conversation was in full flow as we headed up the footpath. I had Al’s new book, My Midsummer Morning, tucked into the top of my bag. The book, which is out now, follows Al walking across Spain – I thought how different the landscape and conditions were to what Al described in the book. But it isn’t just the usual trekking and camping, he challenged himself to busk his way across the country on a violin he could barely play. That very violin is now thrown over his shoulder as we head up the river towards the trees. I had this slightly nutty idea that I could capture an image of him with it in the river.
Following in Lee's footsteps
In 1935 Laurie Lee travelled to Spain, walking through the country earning money for food by playing his violin. He wrote a book about his journey, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning; it inspired Al and made him fall in love with Spain. For 15 years Al had dreamed of following Laurie’s footsteps, but he wasn’t musical. The thought of busking terrified him, but so did middle age and settling down, so he decided to do it anyway.
We walk up and down the river and rule out potential spots to swim. Bank too steep, large leafy tree in the way, stinging nettles… but before long Al is waist deep in the river, wetsuit and
bobble hat on, playing the violin. I wanted the photo, but I didn’t imagine a performance. The rain continued to fall, you could hear the patter on the water and fat green leaves around us, then cutting through was the squawk of the violin. A little tune which suddenly made the day feel bright. I could do nothing but laugh and smile. I would have certainly thrown him a coin, had he not been stood in the River Medway.
I place the violin back in its case and slide down the wet grass into the water. It feels warm, despite the cooler than expected air temperature. “Did you hope I might have cancelled this morning when you saw the rain?” he asks me. I laugh and explain that of course like any rainy Monday, it is never easy to get out of bed and go to work, but then a lot of people would rather be doing this than sitting in an office. He agrees, but also notes how strange it is. “I have to say if I wasn’t meeting you, I wouldn’t be swimming now,” he says. “Someone on Instagram said the other day that they really liked me because I was eccentric,” he says. “They said they wanted to grow up and be an old eccentric man like me. I liked that!”
The happy adventurer
Later over a cup of tea, I admit to Al that I hadn’t read any of his other books. I had followed him on social media, read his newsletter and dipped in and out of his Microadventures book. While I loved his spirit and cheery chat on social media, the books about his cycling around the world or walking across India hadn’t appealed to me. I didn’t feel like his target audience and even opening up the current book, I was convinced it wasn’t for me either, but how wrong I was. Just 80 pages in and I had shed a tear and turned over pages to return to later. This wasn’t just another book about a man doing an adventure, this was something far more real, far more authentic and honest.
“I always wanted to write about the trip,” says Al. “But I didn’t think I would write a book like this. I thought it would be like my other adventure books. It is quite different to the sort of stuff I put on social media, that happy cheerful Al and I have been quite nervous putting it out there for all those reasons,” But there was no need to worry, just a week after it came out the reviews and response were all positive. But it wasn’t an accident, it was a conscious decision. “There were two factors that influenced the final edit,” says Al. “The trip itself was pretty uneventful: I turn up in Spain really nervous and I play the violin; first day someone gives me some money and then it continues to be brilliant. It wasn’t exciting, the publisher read the first draft and said that nothing really happens, which was fair and I agreed. But another factor was that over the years I had created a private life and internet life that was so separate, ridiculously so. While I liked it like that, it became increasingly weird that online I was happy adventurer Al and at home I was somewhat different. The distance between them began to feel awkward.”
Behind the social media curtain
What he described is exactly how I felt towards him. He was this happy adventure chap, we had nothing in common. He was the type who jumped out of bed in the morning and grabbed life by the balls, I wasn’t. I couldn’t relate. But of course, there is always so much more to the story than what is presented to us in the public eye. “I am like a teenager, I would sleep until 10am in the morning if I didn’t set an alarm,” he admits. “My default setting is pessimistic and bit of a wimp, I have to work really hard not to be like that.” Al’s other books are all very true and real, but this one is more vulnerable, which I think adds to its charm. “The whole trip to Spain was about vulnerability and weakness, so the theme continues,” says Al. “I was getting more and more emails from people who say they want to do adventure but they can’t because of XYZ. So I thought there was scope to show people you can have a normal life and fit in adventure. I would get annoyed when people would say things like, ‘It is alright for you, it is easy, I have got two kids and a mortgage to pay…’ and I would be thinking – yeah, me too!”
Al’s personal story is stitched into the narrative of the Spanish adventure. In between his tales of learning to play the violin and earning enough for food Al tells the story of his marriage, his children arriving and his frustration of losing the capacity to adventure. It is a brave piece, sharing the difficulties of becoming a husband and then father. “I was nervous about my family’s response,” says Al. It is this honesty that makes it such a compelling read. Someone once told me that a good memoir is like standing on stage naked and then reading out loud your innermost thoughts, if you don’t go far enough the book won’t work. But Al’s descriptions of falling into conventional life and what that means to him are what makes it relatable and so readable.
“I was careful not to be to down on traditional life, because most of my readers will have this normal kind of life,” says Al. “But what annoys me is when people fall into that life because it is what other people do, not a conscious decision. I think people think you have to be adventurous to do adventure, this isn’t the case. I became adventurous by doing adventure. That is how I learned that living adventurously was quite exciting.”
Enjoy life as it is
Al’s day to day is pretty much like most people. He takes the kids to school, football, ballet lessons and Brownies. He famously works from a shed in the garden. “Everyday I go in there it makes me happy,” he says. “It is a really personal space. It is a good way to escape the family home, but also importantly when I go back into the house I have to become Dad and husband. I am driven, if I could do it all the time I would. But what I have learnt and what I try to explain in the book is I am learning to chill out, slow down and enjoy life as it is.”
Looking ahead, Al is continuing his writing projects, including a sequel to his kid’s book, Great Adventures, and a book about a girl who rowed an ocean, based on his own experience. There will still be climbing trees, leaping in rivers and a life of adventures. If you’re wondering, Al has retired the violin. “I really enjoyed the process of learning and practising daily, but I am still awful,” he says. “I did a talk in Las Vegas and played the violin there. I got a one dollar tip, which I framed and put up in the shed. Once you have played Vegas as a musician you can retire.”