As we know from the LAM group, motorcyclists come from a wide range of backgrounds, personal and professional, but how many of them were writers? Here LAM member John McNally takes a light hearted look at four of them
First we have the unlikely figure of Evelyn Waugh, now best remembered as the author of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and a prominent member of the literary world from the 1920s to the 50s. In his twenties Evelyn owned a Douglas – exact model unknown, and he records ‘having to wheel it a long way and buy a new tyre’, also ‘falling over and all the time, sliding all over the road’. Following further mechanical trouble he then exchanged it for a Francis Barnet, which I have identified from a photo as a model 4, powered by a 147cc two-stroke Villiers engine. He used this to commute between Lancing school, where he taught, Oxford, London and the various country houses to which he was invited, so must have covered a good few miles.
He’s recorded as casting envious glances at a friend’s Sunbeam but little is known about the remainder of Evelyn’s career as a rider. Following the success of his humorous masterpiece ‘Decline and Fall’ he could have easily afforded a better bike, possibly a 350cc Rudge TT with OHV engine, but there is no evidence that he remained on two wheels.
Could he have become an advanced rider? From what we know of his scrapes he would have benefitted from attending a Machine Control Day. A session at ‘Dr Dave’s workshop’ may have helped him to prevent mechanical breakdown. The performance of his ‘Franny B’ would have been modest indeed and any modern bike would be quite a step up, so I would recommend him to start with an intensive basic course. If he joined his local IAM his acerbic and often unkind sense of humour might find targets in other riders, so he could potentially cause dissention within the group. As a notoriously heavy drinker he would not be able to restrain himself at any refreshment stop where alcohol was available, so he may not be welcome on group rides.
Verdict: Evelyn used bikes as a cheap and convenient form of transport rather than as an enthusiast, but nonetheless piloted a very basic machine over a lot of miles in often poor conditions. Headstrong, I doubt that he would take much notice of advice from an Observer. He could become a Full Member only if he put his attitude on hold and curbed his drinking.
Evelyn was an influential literary figure in his time and the quality of his writing stands up today. However, many of his attitudes and some of the language he used would not find favour today and which would no doubt result in him being ‘cancelled’ from public appearances.
Biker credibility – 5/10
As a writer 8/10
A contrasting figure is the American journalist and author Hunter S Thompson. Hunter has written widely in the areas of sport, politics, and popular culture but came to prominence with the publication of ‘Hell’s Angels’ in 1965. He is known as the father of ‘gonzo journalism’, a frequent contributor to ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine and the author of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, which was later filmed, starring Johnny Depp.
In order to garner material for his first book Hunter had to hang with the Angels and needed to get a bike. Deciding against purchasing temptingly cheap chopper of dubious provenance from a member of the chapter he narrowed his choice down to a Harley Sportster, Bonneville and BSA Rocket, eventually going with the Beeza.
He describes one riding incident thus ‘I went into an obviously dangerous curve at about seventy, the top of my second gear. The wet road prevented me from leaning it over to compensate for the tremendous inertia, and somewhere in the middle of the curve I realised that the rear wheel was no longer following the front one. The bike was going sideways towards a bank of railroad trucks…….’
Most likely he was doing about thirty and seems to have walked away unharmed. His pillion passenger however suffered a severely displaced fracture of the femur about which Hunter shows no remorse whatsoever.
Later, in the 70s Hunter was instrumental in mythologizing the Vincent Black Shadow. He first rode the Honda 750 Four which he describes as ‘just fine: very quick, very powerful’ by way of contrast, before coming to the Vincent: ‘A genuinely hellish bike …. The vibration almost fused my wrist bones’ ‘If you rode the Vincent Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time you would almost certainly die’ ‘Will outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the runway’.
Hunter also refers to having a Ducati 900 – exact model designation not recorded; however along with his writing his main interests were drugs and guns rather than bikes. As is well known, Hunter committed suicide by gunshot in 2005 while in a fit of depression and slowed down considerably by hip replacements and other medical problems. His ashes were fired into the sky by a large cannon; this exhibition being funded by Johnny Depp.
I suspect that Hunter viewed bikes as just another macho accoutrement, rather than a genuine passion. He did ride of course, but as the above extracts indicate he was entirely ignorant of the principles of IPSGA as well as being guilty of gross exaggeration and self-aggrandisement. He was for a time under the influence of the Angels’ reckless riding style and disdain for safety, but once he had emerged from this – following a ‘stomping’ administered when they realised that he was going to be making money out of his experiences with them – he may have been amenable to advanced training. However, his frequent use of psychedelic drugs will have affected his spatial awareness and he may have been vulnerable to the dreaded ‘acid flashback’ while riding.
Verdict: Hunter could have made it as an advanced rider if he put the time and effort in; however I suspect he thought that he overestimated his own abilities and would have needed a very strong and determined Observer. Group members would be at risk of having their character and behaviour subject to bizarre exaggeration should he decide to include the IAM in his ‘Fear and Loathing’ series. While enjoyable company he would doubtless be a bad influence on other Associates and, should he bring out his ‘stash’, any residential trip would be reduced to chaos.
Hunter is an entertaining writer though as his USP was to blend fact and fantasy with often violent imagery it’s not to everyone’s taste. Unfortunately he spawned a legion of less talented imitators and his celebration of drugs and alcohol as a facilitator his craft has set many a young man – yes they are all men- on the wrong path.
Biker credibility: 7/10
As a writer: 7/10
The next biking writer is the complex and enigmatic figure T.E. Lawrence. Best known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and with a background as an Arabist and Archaeologist Lawrence pioneered the use of guerrilla warfare in the Middle East campaigns of the First World War. He recorded this in his memoir ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ which became a best seller and many of the episodes are represented in the famous film, in which he is played by Peter O’Toole. However unable to cope with public adulation on his return to the UK, and disillusioned by the post-war agreement between the great powers regarding the future of the Middle East he joined the RAF under an assumed name. During this period he proved himself a brilliant engineer, developing the use of fast motor boats for air-sea rescue.
Lawrence was a genuinely avid rider and owned a succession of Brough Superiors, the fastest and most luxurious motorcycle then available, capable of 100mph. His eighth, which he never lived to take delivery of is on display in the National Motor Museum. He rode in a one piece rubberised suit of his own design and, as this had no pockets devised a means of holding two half-crowns (25p) in his filler cap in order to buy petrol.
On 13 May 1935 he was out near his Dorset home where a dip in the road obscured his view of two young cyclists. In manoeuvring to avoid them he crashed, dying six days later of injuries sustained. An interesting post-script to this is that one of the doctors who attended him, Hugh Cairns, a neurosurgeon, became interested in head injuries as a cause of death amongst motorcyclists and his work led to the adoption by the army of crash helmets for dispatch riders and ultimately to compulsory helmets for all.
Verdict: Lawrence is a true motorcycling legend. However, was he looking far enough down the road that fateful day? We can assume that he would have been familiar with the lie of the land, so he was clearly failing to expect the unexpected. Would a greater knowledge of counter-steering have enabled him to avoid the accident? Was he ‘target fixated’ on one of the cyclists? Nonetheless, had Lawrence had access to the principles of advanced riding there is no doubt that he would have adopted them to the letter and probably gone on to make improvements. If Lawrence joined his local IAM group I have no doubt that he could have become a Local and possibly a National Observer. Moreover his engineering genius would have benefitted members seeking to modify or adapt their machines. However, as a reserved and private individual he might struggle to find kindred spirits and therefore become isolated within the group.
As a writer Lawrence was competent, however these were works of history and military strategy, though with some well-known embellishments. He also corresponded with many of the notable figures of his day including Churchill. I haven’t read his fictional work on his life as an enlisted man but would be interested to do so.
Biker credibility 10/10
As a writer: 6/10
All round enigma 10/10
For our last author we move away from the English speaking world to South America, to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara no less. He qualifies as the author of three books including ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ though in truth the original title ‘Travel through South America’(Viaje por Sudamérica) is more apt as less than a third of the journey was completed by bike.
Che was a rugby playing Argentinian medical student with a particular interest in leprosy when he and his friend Alberto Granado set out to travel to Venezuela by motorcycle in 1952. The bike they used, La Poderosa (the powerful one) was a 1939 Norton 16H 500cc single belonging to Alberto, though they both took turns at the handle bars. The bike was clearly heavily overloaded from the start and almost unbelievably in addition to clothing etc. they carried a grill in order to cook the ‘bifes’ which form a staple element of the Argentinian diet.
The pair set out from Córdoba in central Argentina, riding 1200km to reach the Atlantic coast before tuning west to cross the Andes and into Chile. Che’s diary contains a litany of punctures, crashes and mechanical problems including failure of both brakes just as they encountered a flock of sheep on a mountain road. Unsurprisingly, La Poderosa eventually deteriorated beyond repair and was abandoned in Santiago de Chile, leaving them to continue the northward journey by other means.
This journey brought Che into contact with impoverished and disenfranchised groups in South America, setting him on the path towards revolutionary socialism. As a brilliant and ruthless military commander Che played an important role in the success of the Cuban revolution. Following the ousting of the Batista regime Che’s status as ‘Commandante’ would have enabled him to requisition one of the bikes abandoned by the fleeing middle-classes, possibly a low-mileage Indian or Harley. His dislike of ostentation and privilege would have restrained him from this and if he rode at all it would have been on a modest lightweight Gilera or Moto Guzzi, or even a Raleigh Moped.
Che’s commitment to exporting revolution would however have left him with little time for motorcycling and there is no evidence that he ever rode again prior to his execution in Bolivia at the behest of the CIA in 1967.
Verdict: Given the terrain in which he rode Che would have been well-advised to undertake a specialist course in off-road riding. He could have also picked up a few maintenance tips from attending Dr Dave’s Workshop. As a rider Che seems to have shown more dogged persistence than he did skill, but this is not to say that with sufficient effort and practice he could not have become an advanced rider. If he joined an IAM group he may have been irked by the disparity between members able to afford top of the range European makes and those with older and more modest machines from the ‘big four’; I would also envisage that if he attempted to take over influential positions on the committee and reorganise LAM into a revolutionary fighting force this would not go down well with everyone. However, as a qualified doctor it would be reassuring to have him on group rides in the event of an ‘off’ and as a skilled propagandist he would be helpful in spreading the Roadsafe message.
As a writer Che has a fresh and engaging style and while not great literature it’s a good read. I have not read his later revolutionary works, but in the Motorcycle Diaries he comes across as a genuinely warm and caring person; however those traitors and counter-revolutionaries who he later dealt with by way of summary execution may well see him differently.
Biker credibility – 6/10
As a writer: 6/10
Poster and T shirt icon: 10/10
Are there motorcyclists in other areas of the arts – visual artists or composers for instance?
If so how many of them would make the grade as advanced riders?
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