This sun also rises

14th November 2017 |

Although the Jupiter journey for which I am best known began in October 1973, the road leading up to it was long and eventful. There were several major milestones along the way. Getting the bike from Triumph was one. Getting a license to ride it was another. But the most significant of them all in those pre-digital days, when newspapers were still the most powerful organs of mass communication, was winning the support of the Sunday Times, and that meant getting the approval of it’s illustrious editor, Harold Evans.

The Sunday Times, like its daily sister The Times (though they were separately owned) was a Very Important Paper, not one you would expect to associate with plebeian pastimes like motorcycling, and it never occurred to me to go there. The tabloid Daily Mirror, an obvious target, said they’d love to support me if I could be back in three months. This was not what I had in mind. There were other, equally uncomfortable offers, but I was lucky enough at the time to have a warm and loving relationship with Pat Kavanagh, a rising star among literary agents. I discussed my predicament with her, and she knew that Harold Evans – improbably – rode a BMW, so she took my madcap idea to him and he fell for it.

So much so that we spent an afternoon together doing a motorcycle training course on an old airfield at Hendon, led by three police sergeants, Farmer, Fittal and Easthaugh. We rode round corners under their watchful eyes. We were instructed to give hand signals and not to rely on those silly little lights, and to ride well out there in the middle and “Command the Road.”

There was a general expectation that I might be around the world and back again in about eighteen months. Harry (as I now know him) gave me £2000, worth about ten times that amount today, and a double-page spread in the paper with a picture of all the bits and pieces I had assembled for the adventure. I carried the picture with me on the journey and it was often more persuasive than any official document.

The journey lasted four years and despite rumblings of disbelief among his subordinates, Harry stuck with me to the end. I still believe it might have been the longest continuous sponsorship in newspaper history. I did get more money along the way, not all of it from Harry, but I was always on the breadline. I calculated later that I had spent, in total, about £5000.

After my return Rupert Murdoch acquired both Times newspapers and persuaded Harry to become the 12th editor of The Times in 200 years. I went on a journey of reportage for him then, but within a year Murdoch revealed his true colours, trashed all the promises he had made regarding the papers and, as I understood it, soon made Harry’s life impossible. I was in Buenos Aires when the first news broke that Mrs Thatcher’s fleet – “La Flota Pirata” – was sailing for the Falklands. Argentines were convinced that it was going to bombard their capital. It was a ready-made scoop for me, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything with it because I had just heard that Harry had been fired. A day or two later, drawn by morbid curiosity, I watched as various colleagues gathered outside the Intercontinental Hotel – Simon Winchester complaining about something being “absolutely unconscionable” – but I was too disgusted to join in.

Equally disgusted, I imagine, Harry moved to America. Later I met him a few times in New York, but only briefly. As the boss of Random House he published two of my books, “The River Stops Here” and “The Gypsy in Me” but California, where I now lived, was a long way from New York.

So what is all this about?
A few months ago I was afflicted by a powerful stab of nostalgia for New York. My first visit in 1964 had been quite magical. In those days when the Beatles hit America everything British was pure gold, and all my fantasies were fulfilled. George Plimpton, a literary lion, lived downstairs in the house where I stayed and I was in Elaine’s cultural hot-house every other night with a high-ranking Southern Belle on my arm.
I came back there in the Eighties when the city was recovering its pride after the bad years, and again I was inspired by its challenging energy. It’s a city like no other and I wanted to taste it at least once more.

So in October this year I booked a flight and for the first time in ages it was without having a job or a gig to go to. New York is expensive. I found friends to put me up. Marty Sabba’s email handle is “hypnodoc” but he is not a stray from Jurassic Park. He’s a retired psychologist who specialised in hypnotism. He is also utterly devoted to BSA motorcycles, but magnanimously he put differences aside and invited this Triumph-riding heretic to his houseboat which floats at Port Washington.
Another friend agreed that for a couple of days she would shoe-horn me into a tiny apartment she had rented in Manhattan. There were events she thought we could go to – I suffered through a modern opera at the Met – but for me the principal allure was always just to walk the streets. And the cherry on the icing on the cake was the possibility of meeting Harry again.

But by now he was Sir Harold, the knighted husband of the celebrated Dame, Tina Brown. I was 86 which meant, I knew, that he was 89, yet despite his age he was still immensely productive, still working at Reuters, with another new book out. And he spends time regularly with many of the most influential people in America. All that could change a man and I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years. The more I thought about meeting him again the more improbable and unpredictable it seemed, but I fired off an email anyway about having lunch or something and got an email back.

“Love to,” he said.

So here’s what this is all about. I walked into a restaurant on the East side where Harry was sitting and within seconds it was as if we had been meeting and talking every day. But it was better than that because we hadn’t, and it was a triumph of friendship and respect over circumstance, over age, over distance, and over time itself.

We should all know such good fortune.