Friday, 11 August 2017

Book Review: 'The Pants of Perspective' by Anna McNuff

We have a lot to tell you about recent cycling exploits at the moment, a number of comment pieces lie half-done in my drafts, but I just have to write this review first. That's right, a book about a woman who went for a run. Alone.

"Whoah! (English for 'stop a horse') - that's nothing to do with family cycling!" I hear you cry.

Wrong! 'The Pants of Perspective' has EVERYTHING to do with what we do with our children - and after a week or so of slogging away on the WattBike at the gym, reading Anna McNuff's first (and, to her great credit, self-published) book, smirking at the puerile humour, chuckling at the impeccably observed travel and popular culture references and trying to highlight the incisive, cerebral bits whilst my phone's touchscreen was covered in sweat droplets (you know, the kind where the phone thinks you have 17 fingers touching it at once, all trying to type drivel), I want to share some thoughts on this super book and its author.

We first encountered Anna at a show in London just over a year ago. I had three tired children in tow - literally, since two of them were in the Croozer - and as we made for the exit, passing a speaker's area in the 'adventure travel' bit of the hall, I just had to stop and listen to the crazy lady in the unicorn shrink-wrap and bare feet, dancing around excitedly talking about her plan to set off around Europe entirely guided by her social media following. We had a train to catch but I made mental note to find out more. There are too few engaging female voices in the adventure sphere - and we have two adventurous girls!

Fast forward a little while and I was brave (spelt 'm-a-d') enough to head into London one evening with Ruth and Rhoda in tow, to one of the mighty Dave Cornthwaite's 'Yes Stories' pub gatherings. Despite being on the bill, Anna made a fuss of the girls (despite one of them making a loud bodily noise during her talk) and was delighted when Ruth asked her to come on an adventure with her. We don't like to make any activity 'gendered' in our household, and that's best reinforced by a range of role models; try as they might, neither of them is likely to manage a Sean Conway style beard, this side of retirement, anyway - although I know Anna will be suitably impressed if they do.
Having followed, with the children, Anna and her friend Faye Shepherd's wonderful trip through the Andes at the turn of the year, on its recent release I started reading what I expected to be a runner's tale, only to be confronted by an insight into my own little girls' minds...
"Being the middle sibling between two brothers I quickly learnt that in order to get along in life, I must simply do what the boys did. And if I could do it better than them, faster than them, last longer than them, then that earned me something called respect. And I liked respect. I liked how it felt...
...So that’s just what I did. I did things as hard and as fast and for as long as I could."

Physiologically, there really isn't much to choose between prepubescent girls and boys. There certainly isn't any reason for their aspirations or opportunities to be different. Our girls want to go and explore the world. They want to ride their bikes. They want to camp outside in the rain. Ruth is made keen on her cycling and bothying. Rhoda collects sticks. There is no reason on God's earth to be limiting or steering the aspirations of little girls to be anything other than equal participants in the world - and most of all, I think, that means letting them develop some 'grit'. Letting them compete on level terms with everyone (and to hell with tokenism and 'best girl', or 'race against the boys from the year below' nonsense). Our daughters, just like their brother, are encouraged to aim to be the best at the things that inspire them. Not the best of some arbitrary or physiological sub-set imposed by themselves or society, but the best they can be, without limits to their aspirations!

What Anna unpacks in her book, the journey, the personal growth, that she shares in her account of running New Zealand's Te Araroa trail, is rooted in the gritty, competitive, won't-take-no-for-an-answer little girl she alluded to. She's a brilliant adventurer and a cracking story-teller, and she's still competing on equal terms with the boys, no quarter asked. How it should be, if you ask me.

The daughter of Olympic medallists, Anna was a top competitive rower who chucked in a dream, only to embark, almost unwittingly on a bigger one. She cycled across every state of the USA on a bright pink bike before setting out, unprepared in many senses, to run the length of New Zealand. Serious adventures.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who right at the moment can't be going off on such mega expeditions but is encouraged (some simply content!) to read of and live vicariously through following the travels and adventures of others. As such, each adventurer-turned-author has two fundamental things to proffer with their tale - the nuts and bolts of a journey, and a portion of themselves. Sometimes you get a good balance of the two. Sometimes you get a bland account of someone's trip without an inkling of how it moved them inside. In other accounts, from the self-pitying to the self-aggrandising, you hear so much of the person you don't feel you travelled with them, or in the case of one celebrity traveller's book, a recital of all the people they fell out with on the way, and why it was definitely all their fault.

It's the style, the shape, the tone, of Anna's writing and the sense of just the right balance that made the journey, which you must read the book to learn more about, so absorbing. An epic journey worthy of Mark Beaumont, intimating the delightful unpreparedness that reminded me of Sean Conway, the erudite, well-read commentary of an Alastair Humphreys or a Tom Allen - and the downright joyful ridiculousness of, well, Anna herself! There's even a love theme, which will lead you on to another super book which Thomas Ivor is going to review soon.

As she runs through New Zealand, Anna hits a man with a 'hug tornado', contemplates having a bath in Fanta, likens herself variously to both a chimp and a crab, invents the name of a new STI... and still (and this is significant) finds time to use the word 'ineffable' as she shares the beauty of the land and the mental ups and downs of parallel journeys.

Via unicorn hair, an entire Avicii album (there was more than one?), named trainers, poo jokes and copious chocolate consumption, the reader is happily carried along on a journey that speaks with erudition right into the developing life experiences of a traveller of our generation, with or without children. I was transported back to my own visits to Crianlarich YHA, a decade or so apart:
"I realised that the last time I’d been in a hostel, I was nineteen. I strutted around the kitchen, considering the differences between my 19-year-old and 30-year-old self. I remember being more nervous back then, awkward, self-conscious even. Now I definitely couldn’t care less. If I wanted to use the only remaining ring on the hob in a crowded kitchen, I would damn well use it. I decided I liked being 30, and carried on making my noodles."
By the end of the journey, both literal and metaphorical, both Katie and I had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in the company of an accomplished storyteller. Anna's tale of an astonishing feat of endurance counterpoints serious contemplation on life and how we life it, with joyous silliness and observational humour. We can't wait for her cycling books, which must surely follow!

'The Pants of Perspective' is available on Kindle or in hard copy from Amazon - or you can order a signed copy, with or without your own pair of said pants, from Anna's website.


  1. This looks like an interesting book. Although I've never read anything that's like this before, I'll try this out for sure. Thanks for the awesome insights.

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