The Wind At My Back is Paul Maunder’s memoir of failing to find success, both as a professional cyclist and a novelist. He finally puts these two failures together to make a successful career as a cycling journalist. In that sense I found The Wind At My Back heartening. People see success in terms of well-marked routes, whether that means a structured progression through the civil service, or making it as a professional cyclist or novelist. But there’s no shame in turning aside to explore winding byways, which might be more suited to a particular individual. And this sentiment marries nicely with The Wind At My Back’s many descriptions of cycle rides on quiet roads.
However, with no disrespect to Paul Maunder, I can perhaps see why he didn’t make it down the road of successful novel writing. His book reveals a personality more interested in places than people.
“My failure was in becoming too dependent on this sense of place, and not investigating people as much as places.”
Maunder writes of trying to overcome this, but in a revealing aside while talking about Proust, he says that empathy is something you learn. I don’t believe this is true. Certainly children seem to develop an understanding of others as they get older, but it is also the case that some people never develop this ability. And if empathy does not develop, you cannot teach it. It is possible to learn the social conventions of empathy – as Sheldon Cooper often tries to do in The Big Bang Theory. Psychology Today also tells me that people who are naturally empathetic can become more so, if they live in the sort of society that values fellow feeling. But essentially if you lack empathy you can’t learn it. I became aware of this sad fact through much reading when someone I know had the misfortune to marry a woman who had a constitutional inability to comprehend the feelings of anyone except herself.
Paul Maunder’s book does reveal a lack of natural empathy. I’m not suggesting any slur on the author’s character; but it is true to say he focuses on himself and the places he sees from his bike. You feel little about anyone else. He talks about empathy, but only in the sense of trying to learn how to do it, like another technique taught on a fiction writing course. It did not seem to be a natural part of him. He tells you about empathy but does not show it; and we all know the novelist’s rule about showing and not telling. There is a brief attempt towards the end of the book to imagine himself into the life of his two friends Daniel and Sarah, but this is soon abandoned. Apart from his father who you feel briefly as a person, it is Paul Maunder all the way. You hear about the places he has been, his cycle related philosophical reflections, which in an unfocused sort of way, are interesting. But the people he knows remain as ghostly figures beside the road.
We can’t help who we are, and if this author has trouble understanding other people, he does come to understand himself in an honest way. In those terms his book ends as a success.