I'm not, by nature, a betting man. However, the pages that follow in this book do not bear testimony to that. In fact they exist wholly as the result of a bet.
I'm not, by nature, a drinking man. However, the making of the bet which led to this book does not bear testimony to that. Because I made it when I was pissed.
Everything you read from this moment forth is a tribute to what can be achieved as a result of a shabby night of booze.
In 1989 I went to Ireland for the first time. I don't know why it had taken so long. Some parts of the world you make a conscious effort to visit and others have to wait until fate delivers you there.
When the moment arrived for me to set foot on the Emerald Isle, it was as a result of a badly written song. An Irish friend from London, Seamus, had urged me to compose a piece for him and his mate Tim to sing at an International Song Competition which was held each year in his home town. Qualification for the final, he explained, was a formality provided I agreed to do a twenty-minute stand-up comedy set for the audience whilst the judges were out. Seamus wanted to perform a humorous song, and had asked me to come up with something that would `set it apart' from the other mundane entries. In the event, what would set it apart would be a quite significant drop in standard.
The song I had written was called `I Wanna Have Tea With Batman'. Now I consider myself to be a good songwriter (in spite of my only commercial success being a one-off hit record called `Stutter Rap' by Morris Minor And The Majors), but this song was ... how can I put it? ... yes, that's it poor. To their credit, Seamus and Tim conjured up a performance to match it.
In an extraordinary gesture which was at best surreal and at worst embarrassing, they dressed as Batman and Robin. At least that's what they had aimed to do, but a limited costume budget had left them in borrowed tights, miscellaneous lycra and academic robes doubling as capes. They resembled a couple of children entered for a fancy dress competition by uninterested parents. Seamus seemed unconcerned, his theory of comedy being that if you had an `outrageous' outfit, that was enough; and then he announced his master stroke that one of them would carry a teapot and the other a kettle.
One had to admire his courage, for he was performing in front of his home town and everyone he had grown up with was there. Friends, family, teachers, shopkeepers, barmen, drunks and priests were all rooting for him. If one was going to let oneself down very badly and Seamus was most definitely going to do that it would be difficult to imagine an assembled throng with which it would have more resonance.
Seamus and Tim took centre stage. The audience responded with an audible inhalation of breath. For them, there was little to suggest that the two characters before them were supposed to be Batman and Robin, and they were clearly taken aback by this magnificent fusion of colour, tights and kitchen appliances.
I watched from the back, experiencing for the first time a curious blend of wonderment and discomfort, and could see in the faces of both performers that their self belief in the costume selection was ebbing away with each elongated second. Thankfully, from the congregation, astonishment subsided into applause. The conductor caught the eye of our superheroes and they nodded to establish they were ready. The band struck up. The musical introduction finished but neither Tim nor Seamus began singing. They looked accusingly at each other. Paralysed with nerves one of them had missed their cue. Somebody near me allowed their head to drop into their hands. Seamus, man of the moment, stepped forward and signalled to the conductor to stop the band. Astonishingly the maestro ignored him. He was pretending he couldn't see Shea's frantic signals. For God's sake, how bad could his eyesight be? Was it possible not to notice the flapping arms of a multi-coloured caped crusader brandishing a teapot in anger?
That conductor was more focused than most of us could ever hope to be. He had a long evening to get through and he was going to get through it in the shortest available time. Going back and starting again for those who had screwed up wasn't on the agenda, even if it was `Good old Seamus' from down the way. And so, with all the obduracy of a first world war general, his head stayed firmly down and the band played on.
Time went into stasis. I simply have no way of knowing how long it was before Seamus abandoned his frenzied gesticulations, punched Tim, and they both began singing. Indeed, I can't recall how badly they performed the rest of the song. Who cares? The audience applauded, they won `Most Entertaining Act', and so began my fascination with Ireland.
Aside from the song contest débâcle, there had been another incident which had made this first trip to Ireland stand out in my mind. On arrival at Dublin Airport, I had been met by Seamus's lifelong friend Kieran and driven to Cavan. As we headed north and discussed Batman and Robin's prospects (Kieran was peculiarly guarded on the subject, but later I understood why when I learned that he had watched their rehearsals), I noticed a figure by the side of the road, hitch-hiking. I looked closer, as one does with hitch-hikers, to make that split-second assessment of their appearance to judge their suitability for travel companionship. This was odd. Very odd. He had something alongside him and he was leaning on it. It was a fridge. This man was hitch-hiking with a fridge.
`Kieran, was that man hitch-hiking with a fridge?'
There was nothing in Kieran's tone of voice to suggest the slightest hint of surprise. I had clearly arrived in a country where qualification for `eccentric' involved a great deal more than that to which I had become used.
Years passed. (I've always wanted to write that.) The Song Competition had become an anecdote which was given an airing at dinner parties approximately once every two years, and a reference to the fridge hitchhiker always accompanied it as something of a postscript. For some reason, the image of this man and his large white appendage was indelibly stamped on my memory. I could still see him there by the roadside, something in his face demonstrating a supreme confidence that the presence of his refrigerator would in no way impair his chances of a ride. Sometimes I wondered whether I had imagined him, but no, Kieran had witnessed the miracle too.
Had it not been for Kieran, I could have allowed my imagination to develop `Fridge Man' into some kind of spiritual revelation; an apparition, an angel who had appeared to me as a symbol of optimism in a bleak, cynical world. I could be the apostle who spread the message that we could all transport our burdens with the ease of `Fridge Man', if only we trusted in our fellow man to stop and help us on our way. I could hand out leaflets at railway stations and arrange meetings, steadily recruiting followers into a utopia where, when you opened your door to the world, a little light came on and illuminated your groceries.
Alternatively, I could pull myself together.
And that is exactly what I did. The fridge incident was forgotten, banished to the recesses of my mind where matters of infinitesimal consequence belonged. It took alcohol in excess to throw it back up again.
The occasion was a dinner of party with some friends down in Brighton. A vast quantity of wine had been consumed and the atmosphere was, shall we say, lively. Round about midnight those present settled on a short discussion on the merits of the new fridge which Kevin had bought, and then, by a series of turns, our raddled attention was given to a trip he was planning to Ireland. The juxtaposition of the two triggered a triumphal re-emergence of my fridge hitch-hiking story, which I relayed to the guests via a long-winded collection of badly slurred words. Kevin's response was unambiguous.
`It's not bollocks,' I countered. I had hoped this would see him off, but there was more.
`Yes, it is. Nobody could ever get a lift with a fridge.'
`They could in Ireland, it's a magical place.'
`Magical! So's my arse!'
I let the subject drop. Experience had taught me that someone mentioning how magical their arse was tended not to precede stimulating and considered debate.
When I woke in the morning, in a physical condition which served as a reminder as to what had taken place the night before, I found a note by my bed:
`I hereby bet Tony Hawks the sum of One Hundred Pounds that he cannot hitch-hike round the circumference of Ireland, with a fridge, within one calendar month.'
And there was Kevin's signature, and below it, an illegible squiggle which I took to be mine.
And so, the bet was made.
Now, it's no good me pretending that the gauntlet had been thrown down and that my honour was at stake if I didn't pick it up and rise to the challenge set down before me. I had been drunk and so had Kevin, and if people were held to things said when sloshed, then we'd all be tragic heroes, ensnared in miserable lives enforced upon us by our own reckless words. I'd still be with Alison Wilcox who I'd told I would `love forever' in the midst of a lager-sodden teenage one-night stand. I find it difficult to imagine us still together now mortgage, kids and Ford Mondeo, given that the only thing we really had in common was a failure to remember each other's names in the morning.
In fact when I did get round to calling Kevin, he had only a very sketchy recollection of the whole sorry saga. The last thing he was going to do was to hold me to something he could barely remember having taken place. So why, a month later did I find myself seriously considering taking the bet on? There was no need, no need at all, and yet there I was looking at a map of Ireland and trying to work out the mileage involved in making its coastal circuit. Alas, I had been struck down with what psychoanalysts refer to as G.T.D.S.B.S. syndrome.
Naturally, the adopted logic of those suffering from G.T.D.S.B.S. syndrome is flawed and can be easily exposed. I cite a short conversation I had with a mountaineer (mountaineers are probably the most common casualties of this phenomenon) as an example of how easily this may be achieved: `Why, in the bitter conditions of an Alpine winter, are you tackling the dangerous and challenging northeastern face of the fearsome Mattherhorn?' `Because it's there.'
`But so are your slippers and the TV remote.' Q.E.D., I think.
Why subject yourself to untold pain and deprivation when popping to the shops and back followed by a bit of a sit down, is an option? Why explore when you can tidy? Why sail singlehandedly when you can read singlehandedly, trek when you can taxi, abseil when you can take the stairs, stand when you can sit, or listen to Neil Sedaka's Greatest Hits when you can take your own life?
And it's no good pretending that G.T.D.S.B.S. syndrome is rare, because we all know someone who has been touched by it. Someone at work, or their brother, or someone in the aerobics class, has run a marathon. Twenty-six miles. Twenty-six pointless miles. And do we know anyone who has enjoyed it? Of course we don't. They might pretend they enjoyed it, but they're lying. Life is full of mysteries, doubts and unfathomables but if we can be certain of one thing in this world then it is this:
Running twenty-six miles is no fun.
I think it was probably an American who came up with the adage `if it ain't hurting, it ain't working'. It would be nice to think that shortly after he uttered those words someone smacked him in the mouth by way of demonstrating how well it was working for him.
And yet I was just as deluded as the marathon runner, maybe even more so. All logic defied what I found myself contemplating. I would sit up late at night weighing up the pros and cons. All right, the cons won hands down, but there were times when I managed to make the whole thing seem glamorous. An adventure, the unknown, the chance to do something no one had done before. Wow! something no one had done before. That's something most of us can only dream of.
If you're not sure of the lengths to which people are prepared to go in order to set themselves apart from their fellow Man, then have a browse through The Guinness Book Of Records next time you find yourself with a couple of free minutes in the reference library. That's exactly what I found myself doing one morning checking the entries under Refrigerators and Hitch-hiking, just to confirm that the whole Ireland/fridge venture hadn't already been successfully undertaken by a seventeen-year-old biology student from Sheffield. Research brought relief when I discovered that nobody had done it, but honestly, you wouldn't believe some of the things they had done.
Akira Matsushima of Japan unicycled a distance of 5,244 km from Newport Oregon, to Washington DC, from 10 July to 22 August 1992.
Quite impressive given that most people would be chuffed just to make it across a room. But the efforts of Akira must have pissed off another aspiring unicyclist, Ashrita Furman of the US, who wanted to establish a unicycling record of his own, but felt unable to eclipse the feat of the one-wheeled Jap. So, what to do? Of course it's obvious, isn't it? Start practising unicyclying backwards.
Ashrita Furman of the US unicycled 85.5 km backwards at Forest Park, Queens, US, on 16 September 1994.
Well, I just hope his parents are proud of him. What an invaluable skill their son has acquired. Further study of this most bizarre of textbooks revealed that Ashrita was one of many who adhered to the school of thought that if you couldn't break a world record forwards, then your best bet was to have a go at doing it backwards.
Timothy `Bud' Badyna ran the fastest backwards marathon 3 hours 53 minutes and 17 seconds at Toledo, Ohio, on 24 April 1994.
I checked to see whether Timothy `Bud' Badyna had also managed an entry under `Biggest Wanker', but I was disappointed to find that he hadn't. Congratulations though to the Conservative MP, Edward Leigh.
Before I returned the book to its shelf, I scoured the pages for an entry under `Most failed attempts to get into the Guinness Book Of Records', hoping to see a list of efforts like:
Most amounts of cheese eaten in a force 8 wind.
Most number of years spent attempting to startle a postman every morning.
Biggest piece of wood coloured in, in crayon.
Smallest pair of swimming trunks.
But alas, I found nothing. One day, I hope, the publishers will see the wisdom of introducing such a category.
So, given the efforts of Ashrita Furman, Timothy `Bud' Badyna and friends, I was able to conclude that my plans were rational enough, as for the most part I would be moving in the direction known as `forwards'. Happy in the knowledge that I hadn't lost my mind (in fact I was so happy that I was doing a little jig and singing at the top of my voice in the High Street), I was able to give consideration to another factor in the decision making process. That of regret.
I was reminded of something Nigel Walker had said: `There are two words I don't want to find myself uttering as an old man, and they are "If only ..."' If only. We all have our own `if onlys'. If only I'd studied harder, if only I'd stuck with those piano lessons, if only I'd spoken to that girl at the bus stop, if only I hadn't spoken to that girl at the bus stop, if only I'd remembered Alison Wilcox's name in the morning.
Nigel Walker is a former Olympic hurdler who gave it all up and became a Welsh International rugby player. I had the privilege of meeting him at a corporate function I was hosting, where he was giving a talk about his life with particular reference on the `need to adapt'. There could have been few people better qualified to talk on the subject. His talk was punctuated with video clips of his sporting achievements, and one particular sporting failure. The 1984 Olympic 110m hurdle semi-final and the culmination of four years of dedicated, exhaustive and sometimes punishing training. As Nigel showed the clip of the race, we all watched in horror as he caught his leading foot on the seventh hurdle and went crashing to the ground. In that moment, everyone present felt Nigel's disappointment as if it was their own that sudden destruction of a dream held for so long, aspirations of glory brutally subverted by pain, both mental and physical.
Nigel stopped the video clip and smiled. (It must have been a few years before he was able to pull that trick.) `So, what next?' he said, with characteristic Welsh understatement. He went on to explain that although he had considered a career change at this low moment, it wasn't until he failed to qualify for the 1992 Olympics that he felt he ought to make the change to rugby. Friends and colleagues advised him otherwise, but he was determined, not least because he didn't want to find himself saying at a much later date `If only I'd had a serious go at playing rugby'.
The clips that followed were all the more important. They were a compilation of Nigel's magnificent international tries for Wales, and they left the corporate audience uplifted in a way that I had never seen before. But never mind, the managing director's speech, `Corporate re-structuring in the domestic marketplace', soon put paid to that.
However, before the managing director proudly strode behind the lectern and embarked on his speech which would deaden the senses of a now uplifted audience, I was required to join Nigel on stage to conduct a short interview. There was one question I simply couldn't resist asking him.
`Nigel, was there any point when you thought to yourself, as you were lying prostrate on the Olympic track alongside an upturned hurdle with two badly grazed knees, "If only I'd jumped a bit higher ...?"'