Book review – Travels of a cyclist in Syria – Mary Russell’s “My home is your home”

Back in June I travelled to Dublin to speak at the Dublin Cycling Campaign Conference which had a special focus on gender issues. of the day we were intensely discussing the politics of cycling in all its forms, but just before lunch all us policy wonks stood down and we were introduced to a tiny Irish woman who could hardly see over the lectern. The sparkling eyes and the streak of pink die in her grey hair suggested a feisty character and this was quickly confirmed when she began to tell some anecdotes from her 2011 book “My home is your home, A journey round Syria”. Highly topical in some sense because of the increasing gravity of the situation in Syria but she entertained us by talking about her travels and her attitude to cycling.

It was the perfect antidote to the seriousness of the rest of the day and she had the room smiling and laughing as we finished our morning. I was therefore especially pleased when Damien O Tuama the conference organiser gave me a signed copy of the book as a thank you for coming.

I actually read it ages ago and have had the blog post stored up in my head for most of the summer, but as I have confessed on my library page I do find it hard to squeeze the reviews into the blog.

Sadly however Syria has remained more than topical all summer, something that Mary alluded to when she spoke.

The book itself isn’t a cycling book in the way that other writers use travelling by bike to guide their narrative. Mary Russell is much more a cyclist who happens to use and enjoy a bike as transport when it suits, but equally uses taxis, buses and camels to get around. The two things that shine through the book are Mary’s enthusiasm for the people of Syria and her determination to bring the history of Syria’s culture to life by visiting the towns and buildings that feature in the stories of historical figures.

So we learn about poet Abu ‘ala Ma’Ma’arri whose work is thought to inspire Dante and a bike ride round Tadmor is an excuse to learn about Zenobia, Queen of the Syrian Desert,  or rather as Mary concludes in her delightfully down to earth manner “the Maggie Thatcher of her day”. I guess it is the insularity of my English education that almost none of the figures she writes about were familiar except for cliches in the murderous crusades of medieval times. What the book does is seek out museums, homes, mosques and sites associated with these figures, some of them almost unknown in the towns that host their historical legacy so Mary is forced to become a detective in almost every city to find her characters.

We even have a romantic heroine in Jane Digby, scandalous figure of 19th Century court life in England, Bavaria and other countries who at 47 finds the love of her life Sheikh Abdul Medjuel El Misrab, 17 years her junior and a nomadic chief. A visit to her former home in Damascus reduces Mary almost to tears.

Mary is in turn funny, mischievous, determined and scholarly and I am sure other readers will equally enjoy the prospect of tiny feisty Mary on her travels. Such a great sadness that the only reason I now hear of these previously unknown towns and cities is as casualties mount on the news. Read this book to find out what the world is losing to this inhumanity as well as to enjoy Mary Russell’s personality.


Mary Russells web site here

To hear Mary Russell’s talk and all the other presentations at the Dublin Cycling Campaign Conference click here


Dublin cycling – deserves a fair chance

Dublin Promotional magazine for National Bike Week

The promise – promotion for National Bike Week in Dublin

I feel really sorry for my hosts for the last few days.

To be fair they did put on an excellent cycling conference. But to invite an international cycling group to your city and have every possible weather cliché come true is really sad, there is really no reason why a storm should wreck everything in June.Wet day in Dublin

To give it some science.  Those outside northern Europe may not know that the Atlantic Jetstream is bringing storms across the Atlantic hundreds of kilometres further south than is normal at this time of year which brings record rainfall since April.

And global warming means these storms are wetter and windier than we really should expect. When I got back to the UK last night the country was covered in flood warnings and Brussels has been awful for weeks too.

So sadly the Dublin cycling tour to look at what the city has done on cycling just became a mess, unprepared riders in difficult gloomy conditions. By the time we set off to ride to the conference on Friday I had every sympathy with people from Slovenia or Romania who had run out of dry clothes.

So this trip’s photo record reflects the experience. All I can promise is that I will go back.

“Do not despair” message of the day?

Despite the rain being on a bike was just so much better than being in the congested car traffic. And credit to the hardy Dublin cyclists who replicated Copenhagen’s Green Wave – but as a small wave of high viz bowling in to town.Hi viz in Dublin

I hope Vancouver gives me some respite next week. And as a Brit I really hope the weather doesn’t do to the Olympics what it just did to Dublin Cycling Campaign. Fingers crossed.

Dublin Quays

Dublin Cyclist

Colm in Dublin

Dublin Cyclist

Any port in a storm


Plan B – the only viable alternative

Amazing time coming up – Ireland, Vancouver, Whistler….and learning to tweet @maynekevin


With just a week to go until I leave with the rest of the ECF team to attend Velo-city Global 2012 in Vancouver it has just hit me what amazing four weeks I have coming up.

This week it is off to Dublin for the Dublin Cycling Campaign conference which is focussing on participation and equality, especially cycling for women. Muireann O’Dea, Dublin Cycling Campaign’s new Chairperson talks about it here.

The day before the conference I am running a workshop in Dublin with the participants in VOCA The “Volunteers of Cycling” Academy (VOCA) Project. The two year project brings together small cycling advocacy groups from 11 European cities. Dublin, Seville (Spain), Nicosia (Cyprus), Vienna (Austria), Copenhagen (Denmark), Maribor (Slovenia), Prague (Czech Republic), Budapest (Hungary), Warsaw (Poland), Lisbon (Portugal) and Bucharest (Romania).

They are the great group I met on tour in Austria and I’ll be working with them to look at how we can improve the up and coming cyclists groups across Europe. Excitingly I’m running the same workshop in Vancouver where I’ll be joined by Jeff Miller from the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking who do amazing stuff with community cycling groups all across the US.

After the conference I’m spending about two weeks in British Columbia. Couple of days around Vancouver and the “lads” of ECF will meet to watch the European Cup Final (soccer to US and Canadian followers). Then off to Whistler – just booked two days guided mountain bke riding on the legendary trails. Three days touring across the mountains, then staying with an old school friend for a week before I have to get back to the UK to see Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park, London, my wife’s Christmas present.

No idea how all that is going to hang together, not least because the cycle tour in Canada depends on me buying a recycled bike in Vancouver!

But to make it all come to life I have gone over to the dark side, star man Julian at ECF got me fired up to the potential for twitter. So now you can hopefully follow the tour by tweet too, although I feel like a bit of a numpty at the moment. @maynekevin for what its worth.


Madness Motel – the sequel

What is it with me and mad hotels this year?

Back in March In blogged about the wierd converted car park in Taipei – Madness Motel. Now thanks to Colm Ryder from Dublin Cycling Campaign sending me this photo I was reminded of the motel our Austria tour stayed at in Krems.

Cycle tour participants at the Motel in Krems

Motel - Krems AustriaThe idea must have seemed sensible to someone. The walkways outside the rooms look a bit unsafe, so we just add some industrial fencing.

I mean who says modern design is dead.

Strong suspicion that this might be related to the recent EU egg crisis – the banning of battery chicken farming may be the cause. Or is it to reassure cycle tourists about their bikes?