Are we nearly there yet?

In Books
October 2, 2008

You know what writing a novel’s like? It’s like waking up one morning in London and saying to yourself on a whim “hey, I know what’d be fun: walking to China! That sure would be a great place to walk to.” And you sit down with your atlas and a ruler and you say “OK, so it’s 5,057 miles to Beijing*, let’s say I walk 8 miles a day, with one day off a week, that’s 105 weeks, so I should be there in just about two years. Awesome!” And you pack up a bag and set off**.

And inevitably, it doesn’t go quite as smoothly as you imagined. Some days you just lope along, eating up the miles, but some days you can barely walk at all, and sometimes, horrible desolate times, you discover you’ve taken a wrong turn and this whole Yemen excursion was a mistake and undoing it is going to take forever. And sometimes the whole thing seems so pointless you just have to sit down for weeks at a time and eat chocolate digestives and watch daytime TV. (My analogy may be breaking down here.)

All in all, it takes more than three years for you to get past Mongolia, and by that time you’re barely the same person you were when you started, and just to make yourself get up and walk every morning you’ve spent the past 18 months just thinking about the next 8 miles and maybe, if you’re brave, the 8 miles after that.

And then suddenly, one morning, you’re walking along and you realise that you can *see* China. There it is. Maybe you’re on a high peak and you take out your binoculars and yup, there’s China. There’s Beijing***. And the thing is, by that point you have literally almost forgotten that Beijing is actually real. That there was ever going to be an end to the walking. That there was a point to the whole blooming enterprise. But there it is: the end.

And you walk towards it, and you go “huh. China. I walked to China.” And then for some reason people keep asking you about China. What do you think about China? What is the meaning of China? What is the reason for China? How should China be changed to make it a better China? What can we say when we are trying to market China? But the truth is, all you really know now is how to walk, not how to be in China or understand it, or appreciate it.

So all you can really think is “I wonder where I’ll walk next.”

Do you see what I’m saying?

*Actual distance from my house.

**Warning, please do not attempt this.

*** I do not actually know if Beijing is visible from a high peak far away.

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