Monday, 16 January 2017

Holiday reading - some great motorcycle (and philosophy) books

Two weeks in India, catching winter sun and a bit of culture. But also two weeks with no meaningful Internet access and in a country where an Enfield 350 is a flash bike (and £1600 brand new rather than the £5k you pay in the UK) means books were my only escape to two wheels.

Every five years or so I reread Zen and the Art of MotorcycleMaintenance, trying to remind me of what’s important in life. But before that, on the recommendation of many reviewers, I read Derren Brown’s Happy. Now, I’m aware of Derren’s TV and magic show fame but have never been tempted to sample any of it. Given that background, a book on philosophy (and mainly ancient Roman and Greek philosophy) seemed just an attempt to cash in on his fame. But when the Sunday Times made it one of their books of the year, and admitted it would have been seen as a much more important work if it wasn’t written by one so famous. So it went in the suitcase.

And my, was I glad I brought it. Some of it is predictable – the knocking of faith healers, dealing with fame, and references to the author’s TV work could be skipped over with no real loss. But the work on philosophy had me taking notes and realising that the Romans really did build and Plato and Aristotle. Modern philosophers are discussed, including everyone named checked in Monty Python’s Bruce’s'Philosophers Song.

But what really comes across is that Derren’s a fan of the Roman Stoics (where we get our word stoic from, although that’s to misunderstand their philosophy). An important and timely book that should replace every self-help book ever written. But if you can’t be bothered to read it here’s one important point: we can only really control two things in our life; what we think and what we do. Understand that and accepting it might not make you happy, but it allows you to let go of everything that might make you unhappy. As the brilliant Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius put it, “The gods (aka fortune, luck, chance or whatever you want to call it) are not to blame. They do nothing wrong, on purpose, or by accident. Nor men either. No one is to blame.” Stoic words indeed.

Anyway, armed with Derren’s wisdom I fair rattled through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and finally understood every last bit.  Amazingly it remains the best selling book of all time on philosophy, and the money it made allowed author Robert Persig to pretty much disappear; understandable given his son Chris (who accompanied him on the motorcycle tour Pirsig bases the book around) was murdered a few years after Zen and the Art… was published. Still one of my favourite books of all time, never mind just motorcycle books.
My favourite ten motorcycle books would include Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle, which the Times compared to Zen and the Art... , saying while “at times (Zen and the Art) is hard going, this fluent book (The Perfect Vehicle) ultimately reveals more about the strengths and limitations of ordinary human beings in pursuit of happiness.”

Melissa allowed some of her the work to be used in Benzina 14 and has promised something original for issue 15, so I admit an interest. But, when I realised my copy of ThePerfect Vehicle was almost 20 years old, I decided it was worth a re-read. The writing is poetic, soothing but speaks directly to anyone with a passing interest in motorcycles and travel. If, like Melissa you like travelling on Motor Guzzis, it will make your heart sing. And support included help from another Benzina contributor, Ivar de Gier, one of the world’s leading Guzzi historians.

Next up was Mark Gardiner’s On Motorcycles – the best ofbackmarker. A lot of it’s online, but I’m a print junkie – Mark posted me a copy because it’s not on, although it is at the time of posting available on by clicking here. A collection of essays on every aspect of motorcycling, including ‘Who Would Jesus Kill?’, the inspiring ‘Searching for Spadino’, and ‘The Naked Frenchman’ it’s a perfect dip-in-and-out-of book (as are his Trivia books but they’re best sellers so hardly need promoting).

Not only is Mark a great writer (a career in the ad business almost makes that expected) his preparedness to get on a motorcycle or aeroplane to find the people who experienced his stories first hand is pretty much unique these days. I’ve been reading about bikes since 1975 (the July ’75 issue of Bike magazine), writing about them for 9 years and writing about old buildings for a decade or so before that. I love to read and dig up obscure information. This means that people not as fastidious in their research as Mark drive me mad: motorcycle magazines especially seem to repeat lazy half-truths, Wikipedia style, in the hope that history can be altered if a certain set of “facts” are rewritten often enough. Not so with Mark – not only did every Backmarker story resonate, Mark names his sources, is clear when he’s unsure of his ground, and – get this – invites readers to correct any apparent errors. A brilliant book that everyone with an interest in motorcycle history will love. Pricey maybe but, with well over 400 pages of solid, well crafted literature between the covers, worth every penny. I just hope his wonderful Riding Man (his personal account of entering the TT) gets made into a film and makes Mark rich. Though not rich enough to stop him writing.