I was going to give the Writing Workshop a miss again this week, as I was catching up on some letters and didn't see myself getting it done by Thursday, but then an inopportune case of gastroenteritis in Josie's toddler led to the postponement of the Writing Workshop until today and I figured, well, what the hell. This week, I've picked no. 4 – Which public figure or famous person inspires you and why?
The first time I became aware of Ffyona Campbell was in 1994, when my then-boyfriend watched the TV series that was made about the final leg of her walk. She was, my boyfriend explained, in the process of walking round the world.
"Oh. Why's she doing that?"
"I don't know."
I wasn't all that interested. For one thing, I'm generally not that interested in stories of people who do those endurance-type things (I admire them in the abstract – I just find the actual stories pretty dull). For another, it was on the television, which meant that watching it would have been a pointless waste of time that could have been spent reading. I recall watching a couple of scenes – one in which she talked about her upset that she felt the show hadn't shown her in a very fair light, one in which she was walking up the road playing with some ducklings as she went – but, for the most part, I didn't take much notice of the programme.
I did have a look at Feet of Clay, her account of her walk across Australia. It didn't particularly grab me, and nor did On Foot Through Africa, the self-explanatorily-titled follow-up. But the idea of someone wanting to walk round the world was still an interesting one – why would she do that? – and, when The Whole Story came out and I saw a copy in the library, I signed it out in hopes of finding out why.
Before reading very much of the book, I did understand. Which is odd, because a huge theme of the book is her annoyance about the fact that people were forever asking her this very question and she could never come up with a satisfactory answer. Strangely enough, the irony of this didn't even strike me until years later – the story told in the book was such an obvious answer to the question that it needed no further explanation. She walked around the world for the same reason that Hillary climbed Everest – because it was there. Because the challenge was there, and she took it up.
And, this time, the story did hook me. This wasn't a diary of repetitive entries about miles walked; this was a story about a person, and how she changed and grew with experience.
At the age of sixteen, Ffyona, a stroppy teenager with attitude, successfully organised and completed a walk from John O'Groats to Land's End. (It was item number 3 on a list she'd made of things she planned to do in her life; the first two were swimming the Channel, and being photographed nude, and, having after further thought decided against both of those, she ended up doing the John O'Groats – Land's End walk.) From there, she moved on to walking across continents. It isn't actually clear from the book quite when she first started thinking of this in terms of a walk around the world rather than just a walk across whatever the next handy continent happened to be, but this certainly happened at some stage. What is clear is the point at which she failed.
During the walk across America, eighteen years old, she discovered she was pregnant. The doctor to whom she turned for an abortion arranged it – perhaps deliberately – for months ahead instead of as soon as possible. Physically exhausted by the pregnancy and by the demands of her sponsors for extra trips for promotional interviews, nagged instead of supported by her back-up crew, driven to distraction by the stress of trying to keep everyone happy as her energy failed her, she eventually gave up fighting. And she cheated. She was supposed to walk coast-to-coast herself, every step of the way. Instead, she started skipping bits out and accepting lifts from her back-up driver. After the abortion she went back to walking, but the bits she missed had been missed. She hadn't done the walk according to the rules. And she didn't admit it. For years, she didn't even admit it to herself.
Of course, it was always there somewhere in the back of her mind; and the shame coloured her whole life from that point. And it's her reaction to that that really got me. What effect would that sort of guilty secret have on you, me, most people? I think the most common reaction would be to try to avoid anything that might remind us of it. Ffyona could have given up on the whole idea of doing distance walks and never revisited it. She didn't. She started walking again, with a desperate obsession with doing it right this time.
She walked every step of the way across Australia, coast to coast, doubling her daily distances in the face of imminent collapse of sponsorship and an impossibly tough time limit, fifty miles a day across the sweltering Australian outback with blisters on her blisters. She walked every step of the way up Africa, coast to coast, braving civil war and mosquito belts and jungles and some of the most frightening, dangerous territory on the face of the planet, being evacuated from impassable danger zones twice and returning both times determined, somehow, to pick up from where she left off, walking a thousand extra miles from the originally planned route because it was the only way to keep a continuous line of steps going from one coast to the other, continually repeating to herself "I have walked every step of the way from the Cape; I will walk every step of the way to the Med". And she walked on up Europe, without backup this time, walking from Tangiers on the lowest tip of Spain up through Spain and France to Calais, ready for the final leg back up the UK to John O'Groats.
But, by now, she was having to face reality. Before, it had just been one continent at a time, and, even if she'd arrived at the end of the American walk knowing deep down that her claim to have done it all was a lie, she'd done the Australian and African walks impeccably according to regulations, and told nothing less than the truth in each case when she arrived at the far end and celebrated walking the full length of the continent. When she got to the end of the second UK walk, though, it would be a different matter. For the first time, she would be officially claiming to have walked around the world. And she had to face the fact that she hadn't.
However, by this time, she was fundraising for Operation Raleigh (she'd used each of her walks to raise funds for a particular cause), and a group of the teenagers from the organisation were doing the UK walk with her. She encouraged them, kept them going, and showed them how to turn their pride in the distance they walked into pride in themselves. She knew that, if she confessed her secret, it would rebound on Raleigh. It was a genuine reason, and also an excuse, and she didn't say anything. She completed her incomplete walk and took the credit for it. The Whole Story describes the end of the walk with quiet poignancy: "We hit the signpost of John O'Groats where I had stood eleven years earlier, alone on a cold windy morning. I looked at all the flashing bulbs and microphones in front of me and heard their questions of 'What does it feel like, Ffyona?' And of course I had absolutely nothing to say. I didn't know what it felt like to have walked around the world."
Then, she did her best to run away from what she knew. For a y
ear, she took drugs and avoided other people and struggled with her own shame. Finally, struggling to write the book she'd been commissioned to write about the full walk, faced with the choice between setting the lies down permanently in print or admitting to them and facing the consequences, she chose the latter. She booked the next flight to the USA, went back to the point at which she'd first started to cheat, and redid that whole section of the walk, every step of the way to the point at which she'd started walking according to the rules again. Then she came back to England and wrote her story, admitting to that one huge failure and to all the other, lesser, times she'd fallen short of her ideals along the way. The result isn't a pity party, even if I've just made it sound that way. It's a soul-searchingly honest, painfully open account of how one human being dealt to her own mistakes and finally, belatedly, turned them into opportunities for growing.
There are two reasons why Ffyona Campbell inspires me. One is what she did manage to do. In her walks, she showed levels of courage and endurance that most of us can't even imagine. The other, and the biggest reason, is the way she ultimately dealt with what she fell short of doing. If she'd done the walk in the first place, her story would have meant far less. Hers is a story of picking yourself up after failure and finding a way to carry on and, ultimately, to make it right. It's a story of being human and imperfect and the difficulties of facing up to that fact, and of the courage involved in finally doing so. Her story – her honesty in telling it as openly as she did – brought it home to me that what defines our characters is not just our successes in life, but how we respond to our failures.
Ffyona Campbell, if you ever read this post, thank you for your story. And please comment on here. I would love to hear from you.