Red Tape and White Knuckles: One woman’s motorcycle adventure through Africa: Lois Pryce, 2008, Century Books

‘Her light-hearted account almost disguises the grit’ There are always two reactions to motorcycle travel books: one is to the journey itself – usually awe inspiring in some way – and the other is to the writing. Lois Pryce’s second book about motorcycle travel (I haven’t read the first one yet) is a nicely written, easy-to-read contribution to this genre. But it tells a tale of almost unimaginable nerve and endurance across some of the most difficult terrain and politically frightening countries you could think of.

In our patriarchal world men not only take centre-stage but manage to convince most people that the male way of being in the world is some kind of norm. For example, Ted Simon’s accounts of riding around the world seem, mostly, to be the story of a person’s adventures rather than specifically of a man’s. But Lois Pryce’s books remind us that riding a motorbike, like everything in life, is gendered: in Muslim Algeria the man pumping petrol into her motorbike looks away from her and does not acknowledge her greeting once he realises this is a woman out in public, in other places she has to pretend that it’s a man and not her who is riding the bike in order to be given permission to travel, and in the Congo when she is stuck on the back of a train for a whole day with her strapped-down bike and surrounded by stoned Congolese soldiers touting Kalashnikovs the defining feature of this astonishingly tense passage is to do with gender – and power.

Lois is not afraid to be critical and poke fun at some of the tedious characters she encounters or travels with (she mentions the fantasy of parts of the German motorcycle industry to have the world full of identically dressed middle aged men advancing on bikes – in some latter day colonialist aspiration) but she also writes movingly about some of the positive and generous spirited people she meets in war-ravaged countries like Angola, some she considers her ‘guardian angels’. The middle chapters, mainly dealing with the Congolese and Angolan parts of the journey are genuinely scary and had my pulse racing.

Overall the style is light and humour is never far away. We don’t get the personal introspection nor the lingering political and social analysis of Ted Simon, so the book feels less serious than some but Lois is skilled at telling the story and the ending, which in this kind of book always runs the danger of anti-climax, is moving. Strangely, Lois is still in deep shit in an Angolan mine field and you notice there are hardly any pages left. Uneventful Namibia and South Africa get just a dozen or so pages.

As Ted Simon’s book jacket comment, used above to introduce this review, points out the book and the journey are in some ways at odds with each other, though not in any problematic way. As the jacket says elsewhere, the author is equipped with formidable strength of character and an immense passion for life. I’m not the first to say this, but it is a good read. Having finished it, I do wonder why the seriousness was kept at bay so much. I would have thought that an experience like this gave any author the right to offer some more extended reflections on life, humanity and the puzzle of the drive behind this kind of undertaking. Its available second hand from Abe Books here.

The Gypsy in Me by Ted Simon, 1997 Penguin

This book by Ted Simon, and the journey that it describes, fits chronologically between his well-known account of his ground-breaking motorcycle voyage around the world and the repeat of that journey that he started as he was turning 70 years old. Here, Ted has left his motorcycle parked at home (when he lived in California) and set off on a 1500 mile walk (he takes some trains and busses too) through Germany, Poland and Ukraine to Romania where his father and his father’s family came from. The subtitle makes it clear that he is searching for traces, both physical and in his own imagination, of his father. His father, a sometimes orthodox jew who migrated to London in the 1930s, left his mother, and Ted, when Ted was 8 and had died many years before this journey.

The book, for me, started off badly – but I have to say it improved till by the end it was Ted at his profound and moving best. It’s Ted’s feet that disturbed me, though his sketchy account of his tense three’s-a-crowd type relationship with fellow travellers Manfred and partner (of the long-suffering kind) Ginny was not comfortable reading either. First the feet. Ted writes that he was hoping that his body, which he acknowledges was no longer in the flush of youth, would rise to the challenge of a thousand miles of walking but instead during the first morning’s travels his feet became excruciatingly painful and continued to cause distraction and trouble for many weeks. I share the hope that my body will also rise to any new challenge I present it so the news that this may well be vanity was not something I wanted to hear. Especially at the beginning of a story. Second, and this will be the last criticism, the unconsidered plan of heading off on this voyage of personal discovery with your partner and best mate, who do not get on with each other, fell apart. First Manfred stormed off and then Ted appears to unceremoniously send his parter away so that he can savour the journey alone. And suddenly she is gone from the narrative. Romantic relationships do not seem to be Ted’s priority. That’s plain from the way that women in his earlier books have only a shadowy and often negative presence. But his honesty about both has to be appreciated and makes a good foundation for the rest of the story. In fact, he makes it plain that he has not grown up with a model of a sustained loving relationship.

Travelling at a few miles per hour instead of 40 or 50 or more slows down his interactions with people and atmospheres and slows down his writing in an illuminating way. He sets out his modus operandi for travelling quite plainly. In a new and unfamiliar place Ted selects someone and throws himself on their hopeful cooperation. This takes an openness and not a little courage. He always hopes for the best from people and this openness, that we saw in Jupiter’s Travels, nearly always pays off and the exchanges, relationships, experiences and often deep insights into people’s lives is at the heart of travelling for Ted Simon. (Some motorcycle travel writers seem more interested in simply how many miles they can cover.) He describes many times how total strangers take him into their homes, though they are usually extremely poor and pressed for space and resources, and show him hospitality. It is very moving. And Ted is both curious and generous in his views and his descriptions of those who have taken him in. At one point he says that part of his travelling philosophy is never to spend his way out of trouble.

One of the funniest aspects of the book is Ted’s accounts of encounters with individuals where there is virtually no common language. He describes how he has to guess at what is being said and meant and often this is to do with vital instructions about how to travel or how to navigate some important piece of bureaucracy. He describes, for example, his long conversations with railway workers in a signal box in Ukraine as forming great bonds of closeness without any actual meaningful communication. He understands a sense of being wished well by strangers.

In the background to this journey is the unfolding horrors of war in the former Yugoslavia and Ted is clearly very disturbed by this barbarity in the heart of Europe. His thoughts about it pop up from place to place and are rather unedited, often a little incoherent which probably reflects the situation itself, or rather the impossibility of responding rationally to its horror. The journey was taken in the early to mid 1990s at a time when the fall of Soviet Communism was recent and the countries of the former Soviet block were plunged into the worst of economic states. I kept wondering whether things are still so tough in these countries now, twenty five or so years later.

Of course, at the heart of the book is Ted’s inner journey (as it is in all his books) and in this case it takes the form of his reflections on his early life in post-war Britain and his jewish heritage and identity. He recounts scenes from his boyhood, his few memories of his father, and speculates on where his father came from in terms of his religious background and practices. He searches out jewish communities across Romania for traces of him and in fact finds mention of him in one small town’s records.

The gypsies in the title refer to Ted’s thoughts about the gypsies he sees in Romania and one particular instance on a train platform. He understands them as uninhibited, unrepressed and free individuals in contrast to the burdened souls of both his jewish father and Lutheran mother. He wishes he could be a bit more gypsy and a bit less jewish/Lutheran I think. Personally I’m not sure I found this ‘othering’ of the gypsies convincing but I can see that it is a genuine response and a way to take thinking about family, destiny and identity forward.

If you are a fan of Ted Simon and have read his accounts of motorcycle travel, and are perhaps wondering whether to read this more pedestrian story, I would recommend it. The voice, of course, is recognisably Ted’s and its a rewarding and enjoyable read, highly moving in parts and usually highly insightful.