Rolling Through the Isles
By: Ted Simon
ISBN: 13 9781408702192
Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
Publisher: Little, Brown (June 7, 2012)
In 1973,Ted Simon and his Triumph Tiger set off around the world on what was to be both a physical and spiritual voyage of discovery.
His adventures are chronicled in Jupiter’s Travels one of the all-time classics of motorcycle travel literature.
In 2010 Ted, now 78, embarked on a smaller and more intricate trip through the lanes and byways of the United Kingdom, the land in which he grew up but of which he had seen little since the late 1960s.
His plan was to seek out old haunts and discover how much Britain had changed since his youthful hitchhiking exploits.
Ted selected a 250cc MP3, the Piaggio scooter with two wheels set close together at the front, as his vehicle for the trip. As a scooter rider myself, I naturally approved of his choice and looked forward to finding out what he thought of the vehicle.
The actual riding, it turns out, doesn’t play a huge part in Ted’s narrative, though when he does write about the “little praying mantis” of an MP3 his turn of phrase is delicious:
“It has the innocence of a toy, nothing so purposeful as a motorcycle, let alone a car, yet at the same time it is a definite conveyance, a rolling seat, a vehicle out of a children’s story – you get on it, and off it goes, like an ambulatory armchair.”
Although the focus isn’t on the bike, this is the sort of journey that can only really come about on a motorcycle. Riding for the sake of the ride, exploring the back roads, stopping when you spot something interesting – all these are becoming impossible, or at least impractical, in a car, thanks to increasing traffic and regulations.
Some of Ted’s objectives are places from his childhood, like his old school, but most of his itinerary is constructed on a whim as he tracks down an intriguing site or interesting placename. His haphazard journey takes him from Cornwall’s Lost Gardens of Heligan to Scotland, his final destination as a teenager hitching lifts on freezing lorries, and across to Ireland for an artery-clogging Ulster Fry and a pilgrimage to TT legend Joey Dunlop’s bar.
Along the way there’s plenty of time for reflection on motorcycles, racing, religion, childhood and relationships, to name but a few of the topics Ted covers. He also juxtaposes past and present with fascinating stories from a vanished world of National Service and newspaper offices. The Ted Simon of Jupiter’s Travels only looked forward; this is a more reflective incarnation.
With his observations on traffic wardens and the changing British landscape, the author is in danger of coming across as a stereotypical grumpy old man. I prefer, however, to hear the voice of a curious child, fascinated by this new world, or of a Socrates aware that he knows nothing. The exception is the occasion on which the MP3 gets clamped and ticketed, when grumpiness is entirely justified and British readers will be nodding their heads and grumbling in sympathy.
Not since Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island have I been so amused and entertained by a travel book about the UK — and since Ted is a native, I resent it less when he pokes fun at us. He’s earned it.
I enjoyed reading about unfamiliar places, and made a few notes for future journeys of my own, but I also welcomed descriptions of places I already knew. Much of Ted’s riding is done around Dorchester as he attempts to locate the stately home where he picked potatoes as a small boy in the war.
This part of the world is very familiar to me, and CW Motorcycles, supplier of Ted’s bikes, is my boyfriend’s local dealer. I laughed at the obviously made-up list of tourist attractions in Devon — Trouser Button Museum, indeed! — until I realised I’d visited one of them with my parents long ago.
Rolling Through The Isles is a quieter adventure than Jupiter’s Travels — the possibility of running out of petrol on Dartmoor is not nearly as scary as it would be in the Sahara, especially if you have a sat-nav — but Ted, some years older and newly married, is a quieter soul.
It’s a very personal book, too, as Ted meets new people and reacquaints himself with old friends. Among the latter are Lois Pryce of Lois On The Loose (review) and Dan Walsh of These Are the Days that Must Happen to You — do all motorcycle travel writers know each other?
The past is a foreign country, and Ted’s tales of his wartime childhood and postwar adventures bring this home. But Britain’s present is equally foreign to this returning wanderer, and it’s delightful to see the country through his eyes.
Review Date: November 2012.
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From “C.N.” (November 2012): “Probably hearing this a lot, but the follow up to Jupiter’s Travels was Ted Simon’s 2008 work titled Dreaming of Jupiter . This book documented his two and a half year journey in the footsteps of his 1970’s odyssey.
I loved, absolutely loved Jupiter’s Travels, but found his second book to be much sadder and critical of the changes made over the past few decades and certainly bordered on the “grumpy old man” territory.
Nonetheless, his life and voice deserve respect and tantalize those of us who have not found the courage to step of the cliff of true adventure and the fact that he did his first world travel at 40, second in his 70’s and continues to adventure at 80 is truly inspiring. Thanks for the heads up and review of his latest – I will definitely check it out.”
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