Signs of Life by Stephen Fabes

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Signs of Life by Stephen Fabes

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A thoughtful travelogue. Six years in the saddle celebrates our common humanity, while pondering the things that keep us apart.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: August 2020
Publisher: Pursuit Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1788161213

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I was brought up on maps and first-person narratives of tales of far away places. I was birth-righted wanderlust and curiosity. Unfortunately, I didn't inherit what Dr. Stephen Fabes clearly had which was the guts to simply go out and do it. I also didn't inherit the kind of steady nerve, ability to talk to strangers and basic practicality that would have meant that I would have survived if I had been gifted with the requisite 'bottle'. In order words I'm not the sort of person who will get on a bike outside a London hospital and not come home for six years. Fabes did precisely that.

By his own admission, he wasn't entirely certain of his initial rationale for doing so, especially as he'd reached that stage in a medical career that had him working at the prestigious St Thomas's in London and needing to choose his future specialism. That sounds a bit glib, the way I've written it, but the point is: think about how hard and long it takes, how much intelligence and emotional energy and sheer bloody effort it takes to get to that point. To then say, you know what, guys? Nah, not yet…I'm gonna go travel for a while… I don't doubt that not everyone approved his choice.

I get it though. A lot of Fabes' book and certainly his reflective conclusions are about the complexity of life, but I think that decision was based on something much more simple. He was at a stage in his career where he would necessarily have to start narrowing his options, and at an age / emotion / spiritual point where that was the last thing he was ready to do.

Oh, and of course he'd already had a taste of adventure. My big adventure in my 20s was interrailing around the safer bits of Europe: in his teens Fabes and his brother went cycling around Chile. This was not a man who would settle for climbing a career ladder, even one as prestigious and useful as medicine.

We can all be grateful for that. Signs of Life is the kind of book we need right now. It is (sorry, Doctor) heart-warming. It is hopeful. It shows us that despite all the guns and guerrillas the world is also full of people who press presents and hospitality on travellers. It is also a very readable travelogue, a thoughtful one. Squashing six years into one book inevitably leaves a lot out, and maybe when this one becomes the classic it will be, then we'll be treated to more episodes from the missing bits.

The upside of taking this approach – a one-book deal – is that we do get the whole journey. It can feel at times that we're spinning through countries way too quickly, but some of the most important stuff is right at the end so it matters immensely to the integrity of the story that we get that. The journey doesn't start well. Pelted by snowballs and bad weather cut short day one, and you might begin to wonder who this fool is and what on earth does he think he's doing. Over the course of the pages though, trust me, you will warm to him: as a writer and as a human being.

On the page he is an easy travelling companion. On the page he hints more than once that he might not be so convivial on the road. He swears like a trooper at times and the black humour renowned of the medical profession surfaces once or twice. He is no hero. He freely admits his fears and questions his motives and sense. For all that, he is sociable, accepting invitations – some of which one feels must have been sought out – but many were clearly serendipitous. If the whole feels like a ramble, a wayward hippy wander on a bike, that's a misreading. Between the lines there is talk of photography and hard-drives and websites and internet cafés and on-line contacts and friends in far away places.

But many of those invitations, wangled or otherwise, are what gives the book its USP. The subtitle is To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor. Not very far into his trip Fabes decides that if it is to have any purpose then he can best find that by looking at his journey through the lens of his medical training. Travelling introspection by solo travellers can often be tremendously self-absorbed. I'm sure our cyclist did his share of that, but the bits he choses to share with the world are anything but. We get enough of his inner world to know about the illnesses and injuries and mechanical failures along the way, without which the whole would not have rung true, but in thoughtful mode he talks to us about his stock in trade: medicine.

He likens the planet and society to organisms. He talks about the underlying causes which don't get a mention on the death certificate: poverty, ignorance, war, pollution, ignorance, mal-governance. He talks about the historical progress made against certain diseases and about inequality. He talks politics and history and philosophy. He talks about borders and nationalities and sets about unravelling our conceptions and his own. He talks about war wounds and leprosy and how maybe a radio can be as life-saving as drugs.

Every so often he goes into tourist mode. Every so often he feels the power of a view and struggles (one feels) to express it without overdoing it. Every so often he gets seriously drunk. He talks often about what happened to others on roads and places he visited a short while later, which underlines just how often he got lucky.

Early on Fabes tells us he got into medicine because he was good at science and liked a challenge. Reading his travelogue you have to believe that even if that is true, he stayed in medicine and went back to it for the same reasons he stayed on the road and made a worthwhile read of his adventure: because he likes language and is good at people (and/or the other way around).

Sometimes in a book you find a passage that sums it up. This one comes early on, though it may have been refined later (and why not?) – it answers the perennial question "why?"

"To lie sleeplessly on salt flats. To be endlessly stupefied by the kindness of strangers. To eat well, or at least copiously, and to have earned it. To find space to think, and to laugh to myself about things too small to notice were it not for slow miles. To squat in a ruined Portakabin, very alone, pretty cold and still feel overcome by the happiness wrought from an adventure."

Those of us who have more timid adventures can relate to that. Those of us whose adventures are put on hold while the world remains on pause, can build our plans around it. We don't have to cycle round the world for six years, we can read the book, and then we can look at the small adventures in our own lives in a different light.

If you liked this book, I would also recommend Bucket Showers and Baby Goats: Volunteering in West Africa by Christine Brown, The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Along the Iron Curtain Trail by Tim Moore and The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyre and Chris Brinkley (narrator).

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