Monday, 16 September 2013

Parental Gap Year

Saved By a Ten-year-old Boy

My father died when I was 15yrs old. He was 37 and very healthy - or so it seemed. He had a heart attack caused by a burst artery or vice-versa. I had never even known him have a day off sick from work. Now I realise that this last fact was perhaps a clue to the cause of his death. He would not allow himself to be sick. If he ever got flu he would go to bed when he got home from work, pile on the blankets and sweat it out so he could return to work the next day. He was an avionics engineer. It wasn't that he loved his work so much, it was more to do with an ethos. You don't give in to things. This is how a man can become enslaved.

Image courtesy of

For myself, I did not begin as a dedicated hard worker. I loved primary school at first but as soon as the serious curriculum and rigid discipline kicked in I loathed school. I only went there to cause trouble - to fight against oppression, and school seemed to me to be its cradle. Later I could see that offices and factories were the same. Grown-up theatres of oppression. Places of drudgery where you were required to conform. It was not for me. I went to art college. But at art college I lacked anything to fight against. I left in search of adventure and found it at first in an army recruiting centre. I found plenty of authority and rules to fight against there. I left and after time hitch-hiking around Europe and Asia I eventually set up my own business. Here I made the rules. At last I was in the right place. I liked what I did and I worked with enthusiasm. I was determined not to work myself to death as my father had but after only a few years I found myself working longer and longer hours and driving 50,000miles a year. I became stressed (as I realise my father was) and short tempered at home. I was in denial. Money flowed in and fired my passion. I basked quietly in the glow of having built a successful consultancy business from scratch, but I could feel myself gasping for air – trying to cram more into every week. The eventual outcome of such a life is not hard for someone to predict, but I couldn't see it.

You will probably be expecting me to tell you I got a serious disease or had a heart attack like my father, but that's not what happened. I was saved from that.
So how was I saved?

Remarkably, I tell you, I was saved by a ten year old boy. My son.

Sam in Tarbet, Kintyre, Scotland.

It was the week before Christmas 2000. I had suffered a manically busy year at work. Arriving home I met my 10 year-old son Sam on his way to bed. I kissed him goodnight.
"Daddy," he said, "do you have any time off this Christmas?"
"Yes, I'm finished on Friday for around 10days."
"Could we go on a bike ride?"
The weather was cold but we did go on that bike ride. Around 20miles to nearby Folkestone. We camped the night and awoke with the tent frozen up with ice. Arriving back home that afternoon, shattered, I had a hot bath and lay on the sofa. Sam came and sat by me. I'd been worried about him but he seemed to have thrived upon it.
"Daddy, when I'm a big boy, would you cycle to Japan with me?"
"Do you know how far that is, Sam?"
"No, but if we go after I finish school - before university - we'd have a year!"

Eight years later, having found someone (the incredible Colin Bowyer) to run my business for me, we set off for Japan. 9 months and 10,000miles after that we rode into Tokyo. At 18 it was an amazing coming of age experience for Sam, but for me it was unexpectedly life-changing. Over those 9 months I had learned what was important in life, and it was not work. I had also finally come to terms with my own father's death. I felt reborn – a second chance. And all this was my son's doing. It had been his idea. My wife had encouraged me, and I'd done all the planning, and Colin had appeared at the last minute like a kind of miracle man, but without Sam it would never have happened. Bizarrely, at the end of the trip, it almost felt like he might have saved my life.

 Sam - Laos

 Sam with fellow cricketers - Cochin, India. He was their hero for a day.

 Iran was like a biblical landscape with 100miles between villages. We had to get water from truck drivers.

The return home - June 2009. Explorer's beard came off next day.

As a result of the cycle trip I had been encouraged by people I knew in the publishing and media industries to write a book about the experience. It was during the writing of that book, that I realised I owed it to other parents to share this experience with them – to encourage them not to allow work to enslave them. All too often I heard retired people and old people saying near the end of their lives that they wished they had spent more time with their children while they were young, rather than toiling away every day to provide for them. Kids, you will find, value one-to-one time with their parents far more than big houses, holidays, cars and money. An experience like the one I had with Sam is one Sam will always draw upon both in work and family situations. It will be a great story to tell his own children and grandchildren, long after I'm dead and gone. Sam says a gap year with a few mates bumming around Thailand, Vietnam or Australia would have been great but it would not have given him as much in the long term.

There is always a sticking point. I can see two.

1. Permission: Many of my friends asked me how I persuaded my wife to let me go. I didn't have to. My wife could see how valuable the trip would be for Sam as well as me and all of us as a family. I was lucky. Not all partners are as understanding, as selfless or have such foresight (although she did really enjoy the challenge of managing alone with my younger daughter during those 10 months). It must be seen as a joint effort. My wife was excited about the trip but would not have wanted to cycle 10,000miles. She played her part in the organisation and in providing support services.
Similarly, many employers would not take kindly to a request for 10months off by a valued member of staff. I was lucky enough to be self-employed. Except that this gave me more worry. Finding a replacement to run the business was very tough. However he turned out to be so bloody good that I have left him running the business ever since. How fortuitous is that eh?
Most of my clients were very supportive and I think they would have been just as supportive if I had been one of their own employees. It does no harm to ask.

2. Money: People also pointed out to me that I had the money. In 10months we spent £11,000. It sounds a lot, but I worked out that I spent far more when I was at home working as usual. And we needn't have spent that much. We stayed in B&Bs and hotels quite a lot when we could have camped more. I can honestly say that knowing what I know now, I would do it again with half that much.

So please, people, do not be one of those parents who gets to the end of his or her life saying, I wish I'd done more with my kids. Do something before it's too late.

Book is on Waterstones core list for non-fiction & a best seller on Amazon (cycling / travel)

More details in our book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons'. Available in Waterstones Bookshops all over the UK & Ireland and via Amazon worldwide. There are lots of colour photos and each chapter contains a section written by Sam (very humorous and most popular with readers).
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  1. What a beautiful story. An amazing turning point. Childhood is so precious and we often allow 'life' to distract us. I cried when I read this, not because I'm missing out with my family, but because I'm so glad there are others who cherish the time we spend with our children.
    Love & light-filled blessings,
    Enjoy your many adventures yet to come!

  2. Thanks so much for your lovely comments, Elaine. It was indeed an amazing turning point. I spend so much more time asking and listening to my kids now (other people's too), rather than thinking I need to teach them anything. I hope I get some grandchildren soon. Special blessings to you too. So glad to have shared feelings with you.

  3. Awesome story. I think one of the hardest things in life is that, once you are working in your passion, it's hard to stop. It feels almost like a lack of gratitude when you know the number of people who are forced to work the drudgery. Yet vacations are still important, and this was an incredible-sounding one.

    1. Thanks for your comments Nathan, it certainly was incredible. Never to be forgotten. Perhaps to be repeated when I have grandchildren :-)