Not another one, I thought as Let Live: A Bike Ride, Climate Change and the CIA was thrust onto my lap. Coming from a background in environmental academia, I wasn’t leaping for joy at the thought of reading yet another preachy book on climate change. Having read and researched the phenomena countless times, I expecting anything new. Anyway, aren’t there already enough books of this ilk? Just walk down your local Waterstones and you’ll see them there, on the shelves, fighting for attention, each cover more shocking than the last. There’s plenty available: it’s just a shame so little of it is unique or interesting.
But this is where Let Live showed a glimmer of promise. On closer inspection, it turned out that this was no run of the mill book on climate change. Instead of following the tired old formula of deluging you with facts and hand wringing, this was a work of fiction; a thriller even! Well this is certainly different I thought. What a novel (boom boom) way of tackling the issue. But I had my doubts as well. After all, the scientific credentials of climate change are challenged daily so isn’t there a chance that fictionalisation risks trivialising the debate? Let Live would have a lot of convincing to do.
To his (and the book’s) credit, author John Madeley is a man who knows what he is talking about. With stints as a journalist specialising in the environment and development under his belt, Madeley is a man with plenty of first hand experience. These experiences inform protagonist David Fulsaw’s adventures, giving them an excitingly realistic edge, only achievable with a writer who has first hand experience of his scenarios. Madeley’s journalistic talents come in a handy in another sense too. So fluidly entertaining is the prose, I found myself completely immersed in David’s story as he embarks on a cycle tour around Africa. As you do.
Madeley’s grasp of colour writing is a winner here as he brings to life Senegal, Mali and Kenya, taking me with him in a way that’s characteristic of the best travel writers. This combined with the human element of the story gave novel real power. You really feel the helplessness of those affected by climate change and it certainly drives home the issues at an emotional level. Take Farna, the young girl who finds that her village well has dried up. You get a real sense of how ghastly her situation really is and her powerlessness against forces beyond her control. It’s got more gravitas than any power point lecture Al Gore could ever give.
But a brilliant grasp of how to push emotional buttons and travel writing wasn’t enough to stop Madeley from becoming increasingly preachy as the story wore on. The overly anti-American sentiment didn’t help either and debased an interesting tale. I want a narrative I can believe in but instead I got an angry rant. I can get those anywhere. The bit that I really made my eyes roll was a conversation between two men who worked in a branch of the CIA called the ‘Global Media Monitoring, Surveillance, Intelligence and Action Unit’ (a mouthful I know) in chapter 10. The dialogue between the men (imaginatively named Bruce and Tom) was pure Punch and Judy. ‘People who walk and cycle are losers,’ says Bruce to a presumably admiring Tom. ‘Walking further than 20 steps is ludicrous, I would drive my Hummer.’ What’s really ludicrous is imagining that any CIA operative – generally selected from among America’s most promising graduates – would actually say such rubbish.
Everyone has opinions of Americans, not least Americans themselves, but do all Americans really act like Madeley’s stereotyped characters. No. So what was he trying to achieve? Instead of providing me with a story I could believe in, it pandered to sentiment and prejudice. This for me spoiled what would have been an exciting African adventure with the added bonus of a strong message on climate change. So would I suggest you pick this up? No. Though I appreciate its uniqueness, the only takers I can see for this are the already converted and the anti-American. It doesn’t do the climate change cause any justice and with so much potential, this is a crying shame.
Let Live: A Bike Ride, Climate Change and the CIA by John Madeley (£8.99, Longstone Books) is available from Amazon
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