Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

… the jolliest things on wheels

On Radio 4 recently, I heard talk of an ancient monastic practice, whereby Irish monks would set themselves adrift in a boat with no sail or rudder, that God might choose where they would end up. You might, not wholly without cause, ask yourself what class of an eejit would travel any distance without some reliable means of setting a heading. In 1932, one Robert Edison Fulton Jr., trying to impress an attractive woman in London, said that he intended to ride home to the United States on a motorcycle. The president of the Douglas motorcycle company was present, and offered him a bike for the trip. After regaining consciousness in Turkey, and concluding that the bridge he had been crossing was unfinished, he discovered that

the only damage I could find was a slightly bent front fork which thereafter tended to turn the machine in circles to the right.

And there, reader, before you stands the motorcyclist: one part braggadocio before the gender of desire, one part steadfastness in the face of the facts, and one part scofflaw in splendid disregard of the accepted principles of locomotion and mechanics. In Fulton’s case, the dubious capacity for direction was the least of his problems: as it happened, he had lost much of his engine oil in the abortive jump. A local youth procured an acceptable substitute, mustard oil, of sufficient quality to allow him to ride to a mechanic supplied with petroleum-derived hydrocarbons.

Then suddenly the wind changed and I too burst forth. Clouds of smoke issued from the exhaust. I quickly stopped the motor. MUSTARD GAS!

But the experiment had been satisfactory. The oil had lubricated. If only I could keep ahead of the fumes for the next fifty miles … and if I couldn’t … well there would have been no walking anyway!

Neil Bradford has put together an anthology of motorcycle writing by the well-known, and by people who deserve to be well-known. Ignoring the obligatory extract from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (frankly, not much Zen and precious little use in a workshop), and re-reading with pleasure Thom Gunn’s The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death, start with the well-known: T. E. Lawrence and Hunter S. Thompson (no surprise), Robert Hughes and Roald Dahl (more so) and Ted Hughes (yes, that one). Various other voyagers feature, including Alberto Granada, Che Guevara’s fellow traveller, Patrick Symmes, a Che re-enactment artist, and assorted Brits of varying sanity.

The list of well-known writers who have been motorcyclists at some point in their lives is longer than you might think. Lawrence famously died on a Brough Superior, but Bradford reprints both his letter to George Brough, in which he praises the five Superiors which he has owned as “the jolliest things on wheels”, and his account of doing his shopping, racing a Bristol Fighter on the way:

A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.

At Nottingham I added sausages from my wholesaler to the bacon which I’d bought at Lincoln: bacon so nicely sliced that each rasher meant a penny. The solid pannier bags behind the saddle took all this and at my next stop, a farm, took also a felt-hammocked box of fifteen eggs. Home by Sleaford, our squalid, purse-proud, local village. Its butcher had six penn’orth of dripping ready for me. For months have I been making my evening round a marketing, twice a week, riding a hundred miles for the joy of it and picking up the best food cheapest, over half the countryside.

Boa is Boanerges, Aramaic for Son of Thunder, Lawrence’s name for his bikes. The pleasures of riding, the reasons for riding a motorcycle, remain the same. Robert Hughes, who used to motorcycle to work at Time magazine, throws an art critic’s eye over the image of the bike. Defying the “car-swaddled Milquetoast with blood in his eyes whose hope is to run him off the road”, the motorcyclist, pace the “fustian cliches about symbolic penises and deficient father figures”, is “sensually receptive to every yard of the way” across the Golden Gate bridge (or an Alpine pass, or a Tuscan valley):

There is nothing second-hand or vicarious about the sense of freedom, which means possessing one’s own and unique experiences, that a big bike well ridden confers. Antisocial? Indeed, yes. And being so, a means to sanity.

Hunter S. Thompson could hardly be expected to disagree, in his legendary review of a Ducati cafe racer, but in a Wildean touch, he yields to the temptation he has been offered:

It had to be the work of my enemies, or people who wanted to hurt me. It was the vilest kind of bait and they knew I could go for it.

Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 160-mph cafe racer. And include some license plates, so he’ll think it’s a streetbike. He’s queer for anything fast.

What riders talk about when they talk about riding is control, and control means corners: we pass on maps of the windiest roads on earth, and boast of how we put Newtonian mechanics and Bridgestone rubber to the test.

The presence of travel writing is no surprise, but its quality is. In a strong field, the leader here is Theresa Wallach who, in 1935, with her friend Florence Blenkiron (could the name be any more Blytonian?), rode a Panther sidecar combination from London to Cape Africa, making a house call on the French Foreign Legion on the way.

You might not see the motorcycling press as a natural home for good writers, but this anthology should set you straight. Mat Oxley’s account of Ernst Degner’s Isle of Man TT victory on a Suzuki using the MZ technology he took with him when he defected from East Germany completes a story that would seem a bit implausible in a Bond movie; LJK Setright makes the arcana of the British motorcycle industry understandable and fascinating, but never forgets what matters:

It had been painfully clear to me that girls did not like the Cloverleaf. The fact that it offered them no protection from the weather was only one reason why, and reminds me that the maximum speed when protecting oneself from heavy rain with an opened umbrella was impractically low at 18mph.

Last year in Italy, I met a superannuated Austrian hippy returning from Morocco on a fifty year old French two stroke. Like the gentleman he was, he not only carried an umbrella on the motorcycle, he carried it vertically.

For most people, the find of this anthology will be Dan Walsh. Well-known to readers of Bike magazine, Walsh once went missing to the point where, like some society for the propagation of scripture among the savages, Bike’s editors asked any travellers in an antique land if they could pass on news of Walsh’s last known whereabouts, or failing that, some moderately substantiated rumour. Here, he loves his Yamaha XT because, after falling over eight times on his ride across the Sahara, it has suffered nothing worse than a bent brake lever, though few amongst us have not ridden with a one inch stub of lever and a healthy dose of good faith:

Yep, I love my bike. Which is good, because it’s all I’ve got left. `Dear John,’ said Lou as she made a laughing-stock April Fool of me. Home no longer exists. So I’m packing my bags again, and hitting the road again, whistling `Hey Joe’ while pushing hard for motorcycle emptiness.

Keep drifting? I’ve got no fucking choice.

Those of us who have a choice do it anyway. The pleasures of motorcycling are not (always) the obvious ones: the fast run on a good road is nice, but we talk about the windy climb to an Alpine pass and not touching the brake on the descent; rolling a big bike off the night ferry and pointing it into the heart of a continent; putting fifty miles in before a morning coffee and a look at a map. You could do all of this in a car, but, frankly, why bother? Too many wheels, too many distractions. Bradford has assembled a collection of poets, artists, and journalists, who can explain how it is that the wildest of racing riders can talk to the mildest of tourers, because we all do the same thing: we ride bikes.

Sons of Thunder: Writing from the fast lane, Neil Bradford, ISBN: 978-1-780-57524-7

11 comments on “… the jolliest things on wheels

  1. Melrose
    November 20, 2012

    I didn’t think I would be enthralled by a review of a motorcycle anthology, but I read it from beginning to end. I thought that the sentence “A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties” seemed to sum the motorcycle up, for those to whom it is a way of life – the modern-day centaurs.

    Another world completely for me – contesting the wind, and nature’s steep descents, 50 miles before breakfast and looking at the map – “exhilaration” and “freedom” – two words that come to mind.

    Loved it.

  2. sshaver
    November 20, 2012

    Really? I liked Zen.

  3. Michael Carley
    November 20, 2012

    Very much of its time is the Zen. If you want to know about motorcycle maintenance, and the meditative properties thereof, you want a philosopher on the subject:

    http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/i-am-living-as-i-please-shop-class-as-soulcraft-by-matthew-crawford/

    or the manual:

    http://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/reverse-of-disassembly/

  4. Hilary
    November 20, 2012

    Oh, wonderful stuff! I must, must must read this. I’ve always had a love/fear relationship with motorbikes.

    I remember being blown away by Zen when I was 24, then when I read it again three years later wondering what I’d found in it.

    This is a great review, with well-chosen intriguing examples, including lovely nostalgic reminders of excellent journalism I grew up with (LJK Setright – splendidly named). Thank you!

  5. Jackie
    November 21, 2012

    Really well done review, it conveys the excitement of riding a motorcycle with the banquet of writers in the book. I knew about some of the famous ones, but there were some surprises too. This sounds like a good book for late winter, to assure the reader that the joys of warmer weather await.

  6. annebrooke
    November 21, 2012

    Makes me want to rush out and buy a motorbike and some leathers … :)

  7. Kate
    November 21, 2012

    My daughter has announced that she wants a motorbike when she goes to university (next year). I’m appalled (what’s wrong with trains?), but now I can understand why bikes might be attractive. Had never undersood before! Great, great review.

  8. Michael Carley
    November 21, 2012

    I’ve only just noticed that everybody has pronounced `windy’ as something to do with a breeze, rather than something twisty. Oh well, works both ways.

  9. Michael Carley
    November 21, 2012

    Came across another great line of Dan Walsh’s:

    To them, the bike’s garage clutter. To us, it’s a Beretta, half a mil in cash and a forged passport under the floorboards. It’s a great escape route. And whether it’s used or not, that choice is always there.

  10. CFisher
    November 26, 2012

    I’d no more get on a motorbike than fly in the sky but this book sounds fantastic. Great review! Why can’t newspapers print pieces like this?

  11. Pingback: From the Archives: Reverse of Disassembly « Vulpes Libris

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This entry was posted on November 20, 2012 by in Entries by Michael, Non-fiction: travel and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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