There is one thing that makes Lone Rider by Elspeth Beard an unusual travel book – it was written, or at least published, more than 30 years after Elspeth returned from the travel described. And, now that I think about it, there is another thing that makes it unusual, though by no means unique – it is written by and about the travels of a woman. And you are reading this review, and I am writing it, because we are interested in travel by motorcycle, and this particular journey took the rider around the globe – quite an achievement.
Elspeth left London in 1982 for a journey, in a Westerly direction, around the world. (Most UK based adventurers head off east nowadays). She was 23. Unlike many other motorcycle travel writers she gives a detailed back-story to her growing involvement with motorcycles, her faltering architecture studies, her family, and her love life. In a nutshell most people, including the narrow minded and sexist motorcycle press at the time did not believe she could do it or were simply uninterested. I hope it is not unkind to describe her family as eccentric, in that classic English eccentricity. She writes about her psychiatrist father’s eye for a bargain – one example is the hundreds of tins of canned food from which the labels unfortunately parted company, causing family suppers, as she says, to be rather pot-luck affairs. They lived in Wimpole Street in the west end of London – unimaginable that a family would live on that opulent street of private medical practice and corporations today.
I can’t help myself compare every motorcycle travel book I read to Ted Simon’s iconic Jupiter’s Travels which was first published (unbelievably) in 1979. Ted is considered, interested and engaged in the places and with the people that he meets and their politics large and small and also writes with insight about the inner life. A tall order to match. Lone Rider, fascinating though it is, started off feeling like a series of anecdotes stitched together. But quickly, alongside the enjoyment of reading about motorcycling, came another not so easy theme that recurred throughout the book and most of the travels – what today we’d call sexual harassment by men in practically every continent, some more persistent than others, and all distasteful and scary to hear about. Another well-known woman motorcyclist Lois Pryce also writes about this but I’d say generally got off lightly compared with Elspeth Beard, as far as we can tell from her books (maybe what writers chose to include and what to be silent about varies).
Elspeth also writes with honesty. She writes about the series of must-see destinations that turn out to be disappointments or spoiled by the behaviour of locals. In fact there are quite a few countries that she has actively put me off ever visiting. Then, early on in the journey, in a hostel in New Zealand, she describes going to bed with what she believes is bad indigestion and waking up in hospital having had a miscarriage. So, if these are anecdotes, they have an awe-inspiring seriousness. Later, in Asia, after two serious road accidents, she teams up with a Dutch man and a romance develops, though the man in question turns out to have what, again, we might call today, fragile mental health. At the same time and, it seems, all the way from India across many countries, her trusty BMW R60/6 is disintegrating, continually breaking down and fixed up more and more precariously. It seems unbelievable that she – and it – made it home to London, arriving outside her parents’ house in the middle of the night in November 1984. Any further details would risk spoiling the, I have to say, rather sad and moving post script to the travel.
Do I recommend this book? Unreservedly. Why did the author wait 30 years to publish this? I have no idea. I expect she has been asked this many times as she is a regular speaker at motorcycle travel – ‘adventure’ – events. Perhaps to lay some ghosts.