Back to ’77

22nd March 2016 |

When you move house all sorts of things float to the surface. Here’s one of them – a piece I wrote for the Sunday Times in 1977, just after getting back. I think it’s interesting to read now, and some of it is not a little prophetic.
It’s easy to look back and think of those days as relatively peaceful and innocent, but that’s not at all how they seemed then.


ST piece

The twin track of molten tyre rubber began halfway round the bend, a steeply descending right-hander on a Turkish mountain. I kept to the right side near the rock face, and watched the tracks veer away to the left and across the far edge of the road where they disappeared. Beyond the edge there were several hundred feet of nothing. Some policemen in rough khaki with red insignia stood nonchalantly looking down. I stopped the bike and joined them. Far below, the rear end of a lorry was visible. I rode on contemplating those fresh black tracks, imagining myself in the lorry driver’s seat as he was launched into space. It made me shudder.

I thought of the various ways it could have happened. One lorry overtaking another on the way up? Steering failure? Terminal fatigue? Some drivers on this Eastern run use opium to keep going. I went on to imagine how I would react if a lorry like that came hurtling round a corner towards me, and paid homage to the dead man by using his example to stay alive. It was one of the methods I employed to survive a 65,000 mile journey on a motorcycle.

On the road from India to England there were endless chances to learn from other men’s’ tragedies. At times one could imagine there was a war on. Seven thousand miles strewn with wrecks. A TIR juggernaut sliced in two, the cab here by the roadside, the container in a river 200 feet away. How could that happen? A new white Peugeot rammed down to chest height under the rear axle of a trailer. Tankers ripped open. Innumerable vehicles upside down. All the way through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey the carnage mounts up as the traffic concentrates. On the Iran-Turkey border ( a wonderful old-style frontier where you have to pass through a stone gateway) the biggest TIR trucks queue up, two abreast, in a two-mile-long line.

At the Pakistani end I was, in a sense, lucky. Newly proclaimed curfews and martial law had reduced the traffic to a trickle. I was privileged to see a great city, Lahore, apparently deserted by all life except for the cows moving majestically in herds along the broad thoroughfares, quite independent of man.

Worst of all was the notorious Yugoslav Autoput from Skopje to Zagreb. Juggernauts and impatient German tourists bound for Greece pack these 800 miles of two lane monotony as tightly as the meat in a sausage skin. The skin of course bursts in frequent and bloody accidents.

Nowhere on the 7000 miles from Delhi to London is it a difficult ride, unless one chooses to cross the high passes in winter. (In Africa and along the South American Cordillera I had a much tougher time with rocks, sand, mud, flood, and corrugation). After four years of traveling I was glad to have this relatively easy – and often tarred – surface rolled out for me all the way home but, thank heaven, I had also acquired the road sense to survive on it.

Many people who took an interest in my journey consider that my greatest accomplishment was to come back alive. With my mind full of more positive benefits this seems like the least important achievement, though it was done with great effort. But at least it proves that the odds, however bad they may seem statistically, can be defeated. The only serious injury I suffered –to an eye – was due to a fishing accident.

I found the best aid to survival was the old truckie’s motto “drive the next mile”. to which I would add my own corollary for motorcyclists “and don’t let the other fellow get you.” Most people believe that situations can arise on the road which make them helpless victims of chance. I think you stand a much better chance if you believe that everything that happens to you on the road is your own fault. Everything.

The truly astonishing volume of traffic that now surges up and down the Great Orient Expressway has rather overshadowed what used to be called the Hippy Trail. but the Hippies still flourish. The “freak buses” still plough between Munich and Goa, Amsterdam and Khatmandu, advertising stereo sound, free tea and fully collapsible seats. In little rooms in Kandahar, Europeans wearing odd combinations of ethnic dress, from Turkish Depression gear to Gujarati mirror clothes, still fondle polished slabs of compressed hashish and dream about the price on the streets of Paris and Hamburg. And dope-hunting Iranian police still make tourists turn their camper vans inside out at the Afghan border where cornflake packets and supplies of Tampax blow away in the high wind. So it is all the more bizarre to find oneself riding in central Turkey among bountiful acres of white and purple opium poppies, their fat pods ripening for another harvest of morphine base.

The anti-Hippy crusades pursued with gusto by some Asian authorities may have been justified, but seem designed mainly to clear the way for the big spenders of tourism.

What is a Hippy?
“If you are found dressed in shabby, dirty, or indecent clothing, or living in temporary or makeshift shelters you will be deemed to be a Hippy. Your visit pass will be cancelled and you will be ordered to leave Malaysia within 24 hours . . . . Furthermore you will not be permitted to enter Malaysia again”
Signed: Mohd. Khalil bin Hj. Hussein
Dir Gen of Immigration

The above definition would have included me with my tent and jeans as well as a high proportion of the native population.

In Nepal “every guest who is in Immigration for their problames (sic) should be polite and noble behaved, any misbehaved activities and discussion by the guest shall be proved a crime”.
Difficult advice to follow in view of the impolite and ignoble behaviour of the officials there.

However Mother India remains mercifully benign to all comers. A few more people in shabby clothes and makeshift shelters are not going to make much of a dent on several hundred millions in the same state. As long as India is India the Trail will live on.

These have been four crucial and violent years to travel in the world. Of the 45 countries I visited, 18 have been through war or revolution. Many of the rest have faced economic depression or internal violence. Yet my own experience has been overwhelmingly peaceful, marked by kindness and hospitality everywhere.

I have returned to find prices double, the European pecking order changed, and the political complexion of Europe much pinker than it was. Britain seems a bit chastened but otherwise unchanged. People are as oblivious as ever of their relatively great material wealth. I suppose they are right to be, since what we have here is not really important to the quality of life; indeed most of it, to my mind, is a burden. My mother’s garden, about half an acre of lawn, flowers and fruit trees, could accommodate an Indian slum of a thousand inhabitants (not that I suggest it should). I watch her move about in it alone, pruning and trimming, and I imagine she wishes there were less to do.

I used the word slum, but for me that denotes people who have abandoned hope in their squalor. The Indian slums that I saw were not like that.They were scrupulously maintained in the village tradition. Given just a few amenities (a source of clean water within reach, drainage, a supply of roof tiles, they would reach an acceptable minimum standard. Direct comparisons between European and Indian lifestyles are as fraudulent as ever.

I have spent a lot of time wondering how “they” could arrive at some sort of parity with “us”. During these four years “they” have acquired much more power to press their demands. I see no alternative: we shall have to sacrifice some of our abnormal privileges. If we did it gracefully and imaginatively we could benefit a great deal from the sacrifice, but I expect it will be a bitter and bloody business in the end. Around the world I have been asked to defend Britain in her “decline” and have tried to conjure up some notion of a British “genius” at work. Under the stresses of these last years I thought maybe new directions would be found, new social forms experimented with. I see now that this was foolish. We still carry so much fat. There is no sense of change, just an occasional whiff of decay.

But things will change. Having been among the two billions who will demand it I know they are not just images on a screen or on posters for Oxfam. They are real. We will have to accommodate them.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

“How will you ever be able to settle down?” people ask. “Will you want to do it again?” I used to laugh. The prospect of stopping in one place, of doing some real work and living among familiar faces was all I could dream of. The book I have to write has been on my mind too long, but now I realise that until the book is written the journey will still not be over. And already I know what makes the tramp go back on the road. There’s a tingling vista of freedom that is as elusive as it is intoxicating , and it is peculiar I think to those who travel widely alone. There is a wild pleasure in being able to vary one’s behaviour at will, with nobody around to remind you of what you said or did yesterday.

For example, I used to take it for granted that I preferred to sleep on a bed. In these four years I have slept on all kinds of surfaces, wet or dry, hot or cold, in a prison and in a Maharaja’s palace, still or moving, in pin-drop silence or in railway platform bedlam. I now find that I would choose, whenever possible, to sleep on a rug on the ground in the open air.

Why does it matter? To me, enormously. The habits of sleeping, eating, drinking, washing, dressing that I learned in youth had great influence on my state of mind and body. But they are not habits I would have chosen and in these four years they have all changed. In many ways I find that the old ways of dong things were unnecessarily complicated and expensive. Today what I do is much closer to what I am.

It does not take much imagination to see that the same process applies to less tangible but even more potent habits of behaviour. I think I used to make great efforts when meeting people for the first time to impress them. This kind of thing obviously demands a lot of energy and creates a good deal of anxiety as well. If I had tried to sustain it through four years during which I met, practically every day, new people from whom I wanted help, often with no common language to fall back on, it would have made me a quivering wreck. Relax or crack were the only possible alternatives. I managed to relax by abandoning expectations.
“Whatever it is you want” I told myself, “you don’t need.” Whether it was a visa or a pound of rice, or permission to sleep on somebody’s land, I prepared myself in advance to be content with refusal. The result was a revolutionary illumination. I was almost always given what I wanted and at the same time I found I wanted much less.

These personal discoveries once begun, became the foundation for a

philosophy which, while in no way startling, is intensely real to me, having arisen out of my own personal experiments.

Towards the end of the journey the power I had built up in this way began to fail. There is obviously a limit to a learning process like this; in my case about three years. After many months in India I began to wish I was home. I knew the wish was dangerous and debilitating. To hurry now would invite the accident I had avoided for almost 60,000 miles

In Delhi I became absurdly frustrated by a delay of two weeks in getting some spare parts. When I finally climbed out of Old India through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan I experienced a psychological dizziness that astonished me, and kept me in Kabul days longer than I intended. It had a lot to do with the way I had adapted to the pressure of Indian life, the permanent exposure to people, their curiosity, hunger and clamour. Coming out of that was perhaps like decompression for a diver, but earlier in the journey I would have taken the transition in my stride.

On the long route home I made mistakes attributable only to apathy. For the first time I looked for companions to ride with, and used them to support my faltering spirits. And finally, in Istanbul, I lost all restraint and I rode for home almost non-stop, getting to Munich in three days although I dared not take the bike over 50mph.

Somewhere along the way I wrenched my back and so, having spent four years in almost perfect health I managed to arrive home a physical wreck. And my imagination having worked overtime for so long went into a coma. For many days I could hardly recall, with any conviction anything that had happened to me “out there.”

For a while I felt as though those four years had never happened at all.