An Interrupted Life – Part Forty-Two (New)

They asked, “What on earth made you do it?”

In all my long life I have never known another day like that day in March 1973. I have often made decisions one day, only to abandon them the next. Usually, they were to do with giving up drink and cigarettes or doing more physical exercise. When it comes to abstaining from pleasure or committing myself to uncomfortable effort, I am quite unreliable. So how did I know, with absolute certainty, that I was going to ride round the world or die in the attempt? After all, it was just me talking to myself. If the next day I had simply changed my mind, nobody would have been any the wiser. How did I know – for certain – that this was not going to happen: That this decision was written in stone?

I didn’t even know what I was talking about. I didn’t know anything worth knowing about motorcycles, and I didn’t know much of anything about the world I was proposing to encompass. Yet my concept of the whole enterprise, my vision if you like, was so complete. It was so eminently do-able that it was irresistible. It was an idea just waiting to be realised.

I see now that I had been gradually equipping myself for something like this. I have always wanted big ideas that I could devote myself to completely. I have always left myself free to take them on and I had the driving desire to follow through. I had language skills, and although I wasn’t particularly strong I had a tough body and, perhaps even more important, a resilient digestive system. I had some basic scientific knowledge which allowed me to believe that I could solve problems, and I was pretty good at persuading people to take me seriously.

Many years later I was asked, and am still being asked, again and again, what made me do it? And my short answer is “curiosity” but the truth is much grander than that. It had been growing in me for decades, through books I’d read, stories I’d heard, the little travelling I’d already done, and no doubt my own polyglot ancestry. I conceived a great hunger – an insatiable desire to experience what we so lightly call The World, but what is really a vast tapestry of life, human, animal, vegetable, in all its colours and complexities, beauty and ugliness, love and brutality, spread across the surface of this huge globe, and I could see myself moving across it, assimilating it, adapting to it and, I had to hope, surviving in it, and returning some day with a great prize.

All of this is what coalesced on that day in March, and the motorcycle was the means, not the end. It was this vision that held and sustained my determination for six months. I was a man with a mission.

Since I had barely enough money to live on, it was clear from the outset that everything I needed for the journey would have to be provided by others and the only people I knew who might be willing to spend the money were newspaper editors. Usually when someone looks for support to do something challenging or preposterous they find they have to set down pages of explanation, budgeting, charts, maps and earnest prose describing their life-long passion for resuscitating the five-legged iguana bird or revealing the truth about scientology. I have always hated these exercises which generally turn out to be fiction anyway. Only once have I had to write a book proposal and it didn’t do me much good. What I like to do is find someone and talk to them.

So I marshalled my human resources, and they consisted of a couple of editors and my wonderful, faithful agent, Pat Kavanagh. I felt quite confident that the power of the idea would sell itself. I was well enough known in the Street to be taken seriously, and people already knew I could write, so they could be sure of getting their money’s worth. I immediately set about spreading the word and it wasn’t long before I heard that Mike Christiansen (son of Arthur) at the Daily Mirror was quite keen on the idea and would happily support me. Unfortunately his people, in true tabloid style, expected me to get around the world in three months, and that didn’t suit me at all. So I waited a while and then Pat said she had talked to the Editor of the Sunday Times and he seemed interested.

I was astonished. This was one of the great papers; serious and influential, with an illustrious reputation for campaigning against racketeers and unscrupulous businesses. Not long ago it had exposed the scandalous cover-up of birth deformities caused by thalidomide. The thought that they would involve themselves with a prankster on a motorcycle amazed me. Motorcycles at that time, I thought, were far too plebeian to be associated with a paper like the Times. But the editor of that paper was happily free of those prejudices, and I was even more surprised to discover that he rode a BMW himself. His name was Harold Evans, and when we met and talked I knew it was all going to happen just as I had imagined it.

He was a relatively small man, about my own age, fit and light on his feet – he swam twenty laps every morning – and still spoke with the accent of his origins in Manchester. He was refreshingly unassuming but had a natural authority. In the short time he spared me I was very impressed. He clearly understood that I had serious intentions to use the journey to investigate the nature of poverty in the world, and not just to have an adventure. I explained that my purpose was not simply to circle the globe, but to pass through as much of it as possible and learn what I could from the people I met. He brought in a couple of people – Phillip Knightley, Peter Harland – to discuss the project. Knightley thought it might take eighteen months or so. Evans said he’d give me two thousand pounds [worth about £20,000 in 2020] and he appointed Peter Harland as my contact with the paper.

Once I had Harry’s commitment I was on firmer ground to go to a publisher and ask for an advance on a book and the obvious target was Gillon Aitken, once my Literary Editor, now the Managing Director of Hamish Hamilton who was quick to give me £500.

And that was it!

All I had to do now was find a motorcycle, learn how to ride it, pass a test and get a licence, decide where I was going, find a way to take what I needed with me, discover what the conditions would probably be and what would be the best time to travel through them, arrange for support, tyres, etc in far distant places, get visas for the countries that demanded them, and find out what I could about the route. Apart from that it was plain riding.

The only friend I knew with a motorcycle I could practice on was a friendly accountant called Anton Felton, and his was really more of a scooter, made by Honda with no gears. I found it easy enough to ride around on, so after a few weeks of that I signed up for a test. There was a long delay, for some reason. When the day of the test came the examiner, who was a distinctly unsympathetic type, told me to ride around the block a few times and do an emergency stop when he stepped out in the road. Which he did, and which I did. Then he failed me. I asked him why, and he said I was sticking my knees out too far.

“I used to race at Brooklands,” he said, “and if I’d had my legs out like that I’d have lost them.”

This was before it became customary for racing motorcyclists to stick their knees out on corners, so I had no argument.

Anton wanted his bike back, and I didn’t know where to get another. By this time I was well along with all the other items on the list and time was getting short. Thinking I might never get the license in time, I started making plans for an illegal exit. Surprisingly you could get an international driving license from the AA – or maybe it was the RAC – anyway it was from some office near Piccadilly. All they wanted was a photograph and a pound, and you got a little booklet with your picture, some pretty language asking authorities to help you along, and a fancy stamp and signature. You didn’t have to have a valid license. Honest! I got one, to prove it.

Then I had a bright but unconscionable idea. I called Yamaha and told them I was with the Sunday Times and we wanted to test one of their lighter bikes, and they fell for it without question. The only problem was getting the bike, a 125cc two-stroke, out of their rather large yard. I’d never ridden a bike with gears. I suppose I must have kept it in first, pretending that I was engaged in some deep trial of my own devising. As soon as I was outside the gates, in a nervous sweat, I whipped my L-plate from under my jacket and fell to studying how that funny gear lever worked. Fortunately the mysteries of the motorcycle revealed themselves to me fairly quickly but I had to wait a while for another test date.

While all this was going on I was also, of course, looking for the bike that would take me around the world. The choice was really quite limited. I was warned off Japanese bikes as being too unreliable and I found the warning convincing. The Yamaha had already broken down once. Italian bikes were considered too high spirited. It came down to a choice between British and German.

It had to be a road bike. There were road bikes and race bikes. If there were dual-purpose bikes Don Godden would have told me. He was a motorcycle racing champion and a friend of John Whitmore’s, and he advised me to get a Triumph because it was the lighter and more reliable of the three British marques. The only other obvious option would have been BMW. I did talk to them, but they didn’t seem keen. I might have got a bike from them, but I was hoping for a lot of help from the factory and that didn’t seem likely.

So I called Triumph and found Ivor Davis who was their director in charge of public relations. When I told him I had the Sunday Times behind me he became very enthusiastic and invited me to come and visit them. British bikes were losing their markets rapidly to the Japanese interlopers and their survival was already in doubt. Davis was clearly eager for publicity.

One sunny day in mid-summer I drove up to their factory at Meriden, which happened to be at the geographical heart of England. Davis had me booked into a room over a pub nearby and I spent a joyful evening there. What fixes it in time for me was the music. The Vietnam war was at full tilt and again and again I heard “Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.”

Davis had assembled a small meeting the following morning which included a pleasant, open-faced man of obvious intelligence called Doug Hele. We talked about which model bike to use, and how it should be modified. I had no idea I was in the presence of a man often talked about as the all-time greatest designer of motorcycle engines. Likewise, they had no idea they were in the presence of a man who wasn’t even licensed to ride a motorcycle.

They decided that the basic 500cc parallel twin Tiger was the bike to use, as opposed to the 650cc Bonneville, choosing endurance over performance. On a sheet of yellow foolscap they compiled a list of modifications to make while I tried to disguise the fact that I was simply an ignorant observer, nodding wisely when it seemed appropriate.

Most importantly for me, they offered to lend me a bike for the time-being so that I could fit it out and have some time learning to ride it. When I did finally get my license on the Yamaha I went back to Meriden by train to fetch it. I remember how big the bike seemed to me then; I was quite intimidated. Later, of course, it fitted in so comfortably beneath me it might have been part of me.

As soon as I could I took the bike to the south of France, planning to get some practice riding it over the rough country on the Larzac plateau. Jo had somehow reconciled herself to my strange behaviour.

“If anyone deserves to ride a bike around the world, it’s you,” she said, and did everything she could to help. We spent some lovely days together on the plateau trying out different packing arrangements with the fibreglass boxes that Ken Craven had given me, and playing with a mosquito-proof tent I had invented for myself.

It was on one of our small gravel roads that I had my worst accident – not serious, but painful, since it buried a fine selection of tiny stones into my thigh. I lay for a long time that evening on a table while our medical friend, André, pulled them out, one by one.

“If this is how it starts,” he grinned, “I’m not too optimistic about your future.”

Jo took it more seriously. She bought a lambskin and made me a set of chaps with straps and brass buckles that were beautiful to behold. She also gave me her father’s WWII flying jacket to wear, the one he had worn over Germany. It was a priceless gift.

Back in England, a few weeks before the journey began, I rode my borrowed bike to Meriden and finally got the bike I was to use. Of course, I had become aware that there was “trouble at t’mill.” The Triumph management wanted to close the factory down and move production to another place, and the workers were organising to oppose the move. Learning this made me all the more keen on choosing a Triumph. My sympathies were naturally with the workers.

They did what they could to prepare me. One of the lads gave me a short course, for a couple of hours, on maintenance and handed me a workshop manual. I made sure I had the minimum necessary of tools, watched as my bike, XRW 964M, came off the production line. It was a police model with a single saddle, single carburettor and low compression pistons, but none of the enticing special modifications had been made. The factory was in turmoil. and the next day the workers at Meriden shut the factory doors and locked the management out. But I had the bike I wanted.

There was a huge amount to do in those final weeks and my friends rallied round and supported me, although they all thought I was slightly deranged. Not Harry Evans however. He suggested that we both go down to Hendon where the police trained their own motorcycle riders, and where we might pick up some good advice, so we rode down together, he on his BMW and I on the Triumph. We spent an afternoon in school, learning from three police sergeants how to “command the road.” I thought fondly of them later as I rode through North Africa.

To be sure that I would have time to get the right visas and other documents, I had had to decide a while back what route to take. Some parts of the world, like the Soviet Union, were inaccessible. I would have to stay south of the Himalayas. The Hippy Trail to Kathmandu had already become a tradition and there was a tendency for people to go east, but I decided instead to go through Africa first.

I made the choice driven mostly by fear. At that time I was staying in Battersea with Brigid Keenan and her husband Alan Waddams, who was an official to do with British Overseas Development. I had just bought the three Michelin maps that cover Africa and I laid them out together on the polished wooden living room floor. Those maps are beautiful but huge and took up half the floor-space. It suddenly struck me how enormous that continent was, and how totally ignorant I was of what I might encounter. The prospect was frightening, and I thought I might as well get it over with first. I chose to go south down the east side of Africa mainly to avoid the war in Angola, but also because Alan and Brigid would be in Addis Ababa for Christmas. I thought that by the time I got there, if I got there, I might be ready for some Christmas pudding.

Once I got to the southern tip of Africa the plan was to take a ship across the Atlantic to Brazil, and then ride around South America. I was sitting in the old BOAC building waiting for a yellow fever jab when I read about General Pinochet’s planes bombing Allende in the Moneda Palace in Santiago, Chile. Suddenly every bit of news was becoming personal.

I planned a route through Tunisia, across North Africa to Egypt, and then south. I needed visas for Libya, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. None of them were easy to get quickly but, thanks to the Sunday Times, I already had two passports. Most important was to get away in time to avoid the rainy season in Ethiopia and Kenya, which meant I had to leave at the beginning of October. With Peter Harland at the Sunday Times we fixed my departure date: October 6. That turned out to be the day Egypt went to war with Israel and everything changed.

The rest is history. Read about it in Jupiter’s Travels.


© Ted Simon 2021



< An Interrupted Life - Part Two



I do have an ulterior motive for engaging your attention – a fairly blameless one, I think.

I recently had printed and delivered a thousand copies of Jupiter’s Travels in Camera because I couldn’t bear the idea of it being out of print. I think it’s a beautiful book, largely because of the stunning work of Erdem Yucel, the designer.

Signed copies direct from me cost $79 ($50 + $29 postage, handling and fees). That’s equivalent to approximately £68 (£40 + £28 postage, etc.) or 73 Euros (45 Euros + 28 Euros postage, etc.)





Don't Boil The Canary

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