Disclaimer: Normally when I write book reviews I add a little disclaimer that, unlike all my other posts, it is written in a spirit of some seriousness. That will not be the case today though. A second disclaimer: this review is going to be packed with references to British culture that will only be resonant with British men of a certain age; so if you’re American or under the age of 25 you might as well log off now and go look at Buzzfeed or something. Third disclaimer: I was given a copy of this book by the author to review who wrote: “[I] would love it if you would review Last Flight of the Pigeon. It’s deliberately not a book aimed at China experts or people who’ve been here long enough to claim anything more than a visit. You can savage it as much as you like, it was a hobby project to fill the hours of visa limbo I willfully put myself through. Is that a defensive enough proposal for you?”
Last Flight of the Pigeon is a structurally sound, inoffensive and workman-like account of an Englishman in his early thirties who decides for no reason at all to cycle from Beijing to Kashgar. Why he decides to do this is beyond me. His passion for navigating by bicycle between one pollution-heavy city to another is never fully explained in the book. Such Quixotic endeavours have never made sense to me. I can understand the desire to conquer more primal challenges – like wanting to sleep with a redhead or trying to finish a triple-deck cheeseburger in order to get a discounted lunch – but I personally can’t relate to those people who want to put themselves through extreme physical punishment in order to climb a rock or walk really, really far. The response of some mountain climbers to why they put themselves through the ordeal of climbing a mountain is “because it’s there”. I still don’t get it. As Jasper Carrott once noted, an elephant’s bottom is also “there” but you don’t see many people trying to climb up them.
The title is a misnomer. The “pigeon” in Last Flight of the Pigeon isn’t one of the feathered variety that are rumoured to carry TB and Jack Duckworth used to keep in his back yard on Coronation Street, but actually one of the iconic “Flying Pigeon” bicycles that were China’s mainstays before everybody decided to become cunts and drive Audis instead. Simon points out that it was actually meant to be “Flying Dove” but since there is no differentiation in Chinese between the words “dove” and “pigeon” the translation came out slightly less poetical than intended. At least a popular chocolate bar managed to get the translation right otherwise I’d be sat writing this whilst chomping on an unappetising bar of hazelnut pigeon.
(For a book saturated with obscure British pop-culture references, I’m upset that Simon didn’t include John Shuttleworth’s classic Pigeons in Flight at any point)
However, after about four chapters of Simon writing in detail about his efforts in buying a Flying Pigeon bicycle, his desire to want to ride a Flying Pigeon from Beijing to Kashgar, the history of the Flying Pigeon, a long list of the Flying Pigeon’s technical aspects, and what the Flying Pigeon means to him, China and the world… the Pigeon breaks down on the very first day of Simon’s bike trek before he’s even left Beijing and he covers the rest of the 4,999 kilometres to Kashgar on the back of a Giant mountain bike instead. (“Giant” is a brand of bicycle by the way, I didn’t mean that he was actually riding a giant mountain bike. That would be preposterous. As far as I know the author only has normal sized legs.) So after all the initial build-up, the Last Flight of the Pigeon turns out to be a short ride out to the fifth ring-road. Despite this, the title remains unchanged, though I personally would have changed it to Riding on the Shoulders of Giants.
Safely ensconced on his new mountain bike, Simon then proceeds on his 5,000 kilometre journey to Kashgar. To give credit to Simon, with Last Flight of the Pigeon he has really managed to create an astonishing writerly achievement, as reading the book genuinely felt like I was riding 5,000 kilometres to Kashgar. I felt every single one of those kilometres. Every. Single. One. I have to admit that I almost gave up on Last Flight of the Pigeon more than once, but luckily for the author I was on my Christmas holiday in a third-world country with several very long car journeys to endure, so with nothing better to do I persevered to the end.
It’s remarkable how little anything of interest happened to the author during his long journey to Xinjiang. Apart from one or two incidents with sand storms and the hazards of attempting to pitch a tent within one, the journey is mostly a catalogue of tyre punctures, checking into hotels and what he had for lunch each day. At the back of the book is a list of all the statistics that were accomplished during the journey. One of the stats is that 51 pot noodles were consumed during the journey. This is certainly true as almost every single one of those pot noodles is mentioned in the book. Being the sad bastard that I am, I actually did a Ctrl+F search through the book and counted mentions of 32 of those 51 pot noodles.
The author doesn’t provide much background on himself or why he decided to move to China, but we do learn that he previously worked in the public sector back in the UK. His public-sector background shows as anyone who has had to work in the competitive private-sector would never have the ingrained habit of writing long statistic heavy reports that nobody reads. At times I felt that a Project Manager approach had been used to formulate the book. I could imagine the creation of each chapter… a long list of boxes waiting to be ticked off one by one and inserted into each chapter before it felt complete.
Each chapter cycles (ha!) through the same structure: description of the journey so far, pot noodles, some historical facts thrown in on the particular town or city featured in that chapter, a handful of comedy references to spice up the writing, and a couple of lazy liberal sideswipes at how awful UKIP is or how the British are bigots to show that he has the correct opinions on things. Sometimes the references to British culture from the 1980s or 1990s can be really obscure – even when I myself am a British man who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The book should come with a trigger warning to Americans that it contains dangerously obscure references to Ed Miliband and Kajagoogoo. This brings me to my next point about the book: it’s difficult to understand who the audience is that the author has in mind to read the book. Non-British will find most of the language and references baffling, Old China Hands will find nothing new here about the country, and those without an interest in China may not be interested in it at all. Sometimes I felt that the book was intended for the author alone.
If it sounds like I’m being a bit harsh on Last Flight of the Pigeon: you’re right. The book is largely inoffensive (apart from the asinine virtue-signalling swipes about the British and colonialism) and there are people who enjoy such books detailing long journeys from Point A to Point B – Simon would probably get along very well with Christopher Rehage who wrote about walking from Beijing to Urumqi. Unfortunately, I’m much more degenerate than Simon and prefer a bit more colour in my stories. The author freely admits that he wrote the book as a hobby project when going through a period of not having very much to do. It’s an unpretentious book that doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t.
AND THEN I CHANGED MY MIND.
About three-quarters of my way through Last Flight of the Pigeon, a remarkable revelation hit me. Prior to reading the book, I had just completed Nomad by Alan Partridge which also features a journey by the renowned broadcaster and radio DJ. In Alan’s case it is a journey by foot from his beloved Norwich to a nuclear power station in Dungeness. The more I read Last Flight of the Pigeon the more I slowly realised that it wasn’t about cycling from Beijing to Kashgar at all. No. Last Flight of the Pigeon is in fact an affectionate tribute to Alan Partridge written by a true aficionado. The similarities between Alan and Simon are startling:
- Both spend a lot of time sleeping in motels.
- Both seem to only communicate with hotel receptionists and/or petrol station attendants.
- Both have weird fascinations with vehicular transportation and like to describe it in detail.
- Both talk constantly about their obscure hometowns and music that ordinary people have forgotten about.
- Both have strong views on the pedestrianisation of city centres.
There were moments within the book that were straight out of Partridge:
“So before we get to that point I should make two things clear. First, they are both very clever people.”
“There is more to Xinjiang than this”
“These establishments always – and I mean always – possess at least one angry dog. This one was no exception.”
“Other journeys of a similar length include: for fans of a good time – Dublin to Galway; for fans of Didcot Parkway – Bristol to Oxford to London; for people on Spring Break – Los Angeles to Tijuana; for EU workers wanting a filthy weekend away – Brussels to Amsterdam; and for residents of North London – It’s like cycling around North London a lot, whilst refusing to acknowledge anywhere else exists.”
“Where are you from?”
If inquisitor is female – “Are you married?”
“Why not? How old are you?”
“31, but I have a girlfriend in Beijing”
And how could one read the following beautiful Partridgean-style quote and not be in any doubt that Last Flight of the Pigeon is actually the finest Partridge fan-fiction ever created?
“When I wasn’t sleeping in a tent near a graveyard, rubbish tip, or jaw-dropping scenery, I would be frequenting one of China’s business hotels. They often award their own stars but by global standards, they’re somewhere around two or three. What is not in doubt is the value they provide. I didn’t pay more than £35 a night, the average price was under £20, and some were as cheap as £12.
Five-star they may not be, but more often than not you get at least one bed and a clean bathroom with a powerful shower. You don’t need more than that, but how best to maximise the Chinese business hotel experience on a bicycle journey I hear you ask.”
Once I realised that Last Flight of the Pigeon was actually a love-letter to Alan Partridge, my whole perception of the book changed. I began to read the book with Alan’s voice in my head. Immediately it transformed from a dry account of a long bicycle journey to a hilarious experience of one man struggling to find his place within the universe. I then proceeded to enjoy the book immensely.
Oh, and I also enjoyed the stunning finale to the book when the author announces, for no reason at all, that he has herpes. I certainly didn’t see that one coming.
And on that bombshell… all that remains to be said is that Last Flight of the Pigeon is available on Amazon. If you’d like to see more musings from a man who really missed his calling in life to be a provincial radio disk jockey, you can find Simon’s blog here.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.