In 1973, Ted Simon, aged 42, left England astride a 500cc Triumph Twin and spent 4 years circumnavigating the world. Travelling through 45 countries and covering 64,000 miles, Ted’s account of the journey was published in Jupiter’s Travels (1980) and its follow up, Riding High (1998). In 2001, aged 70, Ted developed itchy feet and took off again around the world, this time astride a 1000cc BMW. Dreaming of Jupiter, Ted’s account of his
3-year journey, was published in 2007. Here, Ted sups a pint or two and talks about motorcycles, the wider world, Robert Pirsig, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
You’d think that having ridden twice round the planet on a motorcycle, Ted Simon would feel comfortable about calling himself a motorcyclist.
But he doesn’t.
‘It was just a means to an end,’ he explains as we sit drinking beer in a Covent Garden pub. It’s January and sunny outside, if a little chilled. There’s a fake fire blazing in the corner. The room smells of armchair leather and wooden floorboards. The pub is slowly building its regular lunchtime trade.
Ted has recently popped over from America where he lives, and looks anxious to get back. But first he has to run the gamut of interviews to promote his new book, Dreaming of Jupiter.
I ask him to elaborate on his means-to-an-end reply.
‘When I set out on my first trip,’ he says, ‘I was 42 years old and I’d never ridden a bike. I had no experience of them. I simply had an idea of what I wanted to do and found myself a 500cc Triumph and ... well, got on with it.
‘Then, when I turned 70 and decided to recover the ground and see how much the world had changed, I was loaned a BMW and used that. But in between trips, I haven’t really had all that much to do with bikes.’
If another man said that, you might think him pretentious. But Ted Simon strikes you as perfectly frank. He really doesn’t care about motorcycles. Not in themselves. And soon you understand that he’s not a motorcyclist at all. He's a journalist. A mobile journalist. A hundred years ago he would have travelled by mule.
‘Of course,’ he continues, ‘when I was on the road I enjoyed what I was doing. The feel of the bike. The movement. The freedom. I enjoyed riding and learned a lot about fixing and bodging things on the fly–most of which I’ve since forgot. But that was as far as it went.’
He sips his beer and glances across at his publicist from Little Brown. Having facilitated this interview, she’s hovering like a spectre and glances occasionally at her wristwatch. An hour has been booked, but Ted’s not going to get away that quickly. I’ve got a full biro and nowhere else I need to be.
‘So how was the world this time?’ I ask. ‘Better? Worse? Or pretty much the same?’
Ted ponders that before replying. Not that he doesn’t know the answer. It’s simply that he has a habit of dissecting a question as if examining it from various levels. A trite answer? A reasoned answer? Or something flippant? Only Ted doesn’t do flippant. Not with any passion. And he’s not trite either. He’s a reasoning man and takes things seriously.
‘It’s worse,’ he says. ‘What became clear soon after I set out was just how much western cultural values had destroyed local customs and traditions. I suppose I expected to find something like that. But the impact was considerably greater than I anticipated.
‘Some of that is down to the growth of information technology. But it’s not only that. It’s other things; an underlying current of western values sweeping everything away.’
He pauses as if he’s said too much. But my tape recorder hasn’t even warmed up, and neither have I. I motion him to continue.
‘The other major thing I saw was over-population. That really hits you when you see it the way I saw it. Between the two trips, cities have swollen beyond belief. When I first noticed that, I thought it might just be this particular city. But it wasn’t. It was the same with the next one and the next and so on.’
‘It doesn’t sound as if all that western influence has done that much harm,’ I suggest, a little mischievously. ‘Clearly people aren’t starving. Not all of them, anyway.’
‘It’s not as simple as that,’ he counters. ‘In real terms—material terms, that is—people are almost certainly better off than they were before. That said, many don’t feel any better. That information technology I spoke of. It’s shown them the wider world. A world they would never have really been aware of. And that leaves them feeling worse off.’
I see his point. But I’m not sure I’m going to lose much sleep over it. Maybe he gauges that in my eye because he talks some more on the things he’s seen. Rural communities almost wiped out. Or, rather, communities that have been forced to migrate into those huge cities he mentioned where people are driven to try and eke out a desperate living in slum conditions.
‘There are still areas of huge deprivation’, he adds, ‘even in supposedly better developed countries.’
Moreover, he believes that the current mode is unsustainable and will lead ultimately to something worse.
‘Do you wish now that you hadn’t made that second
trip?’ I ask.
‘No. Not at all. I wanted to see it. I felt that having made that first trip, the way I did make it, it gave me an insight into life that I might otherwise not have had. I’m not saying that there weren’t positive things too along the way. There were. But when you talk to ordinary people around the world and see how western culture has affected them, it can be disturbing.’
‘How much of that was really you changing?’ I ask.
‘That’s impossible to say for sure. But of course I have changed between trips.’
‘In what way?’
He sips his beer and gives me another how-to-answer-this-one look.
‘The first trip changed me tremendously. Since then, I’ve really done a lot of backsliding. I’ve slipped into some rather ordinary habits—by not staying above things, I mean. By getting wrapped up in too many possessions and family and stuff like that. It’s almost impossible not to get caught up to some degree if you stay in the same place for any length of time.’
Which doesn’t answer my question at all really, but might go some way to explain exactly what Ted is really up to on these odysseys. It isn’t just his world biking tours. He’s recently walked 500 miles or so across Eastern Europe tracing his family roots. In northern California, where he’s been living since Jupiter’s Travels was first published, he’s been engaged in various other odysseys. Political odysseys. Socio-economic odysseys. And highly controversial issues about water.
‘I wrote a book about Californian water politics,’ he explains, ‘which is a major topic in America at the moment. The book took 3 years to complete. The big issue is to stop the draining of Californian rivers which enable people to live totally unnatural lives in the desert in cities such as LA and San Diego and Las Vegas—and which is having a serious environmental impact. Northern California is full of wild rivers. The various city authorities are capturing them all and pumping the water down south. They’ve finally started to realise that it’s more important to conserve water, so there is a backlash. There are huge interests at stake.’
He sips his beer silently as he looks around the pub.
I think back to his Eastern European walking tour comment and decide to explore that.
‘My father was Jewish and came from Romania,’ he says. ‘I walked about 500 miles, but I had the wrong boots, and various other problems that got in the way. I was planning to cover 1500 miles, but it didn’t work out like that, and I took a lot of trains in order to get between awkward places.
‘I went from my mother's birthplace to my father’s, which meant travelling through Germany, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Romania. It was my first trip to Eastern Europe and was very interesting. You should read the book if you can find a copy. It’s not published anywhere, and isn’t on CD. I might have to publish it again.’
I return to his global travels and ask about the highlights.
‘Bolivia,’ he answers immediately. ‘There was a great interruption there.’
He smiles and quickly sips that beer. ‘The interruptions were always the better part of the journey. The odd things that happen. When you ride, you usually just ride. And ride. But often when you stop, things happen. In Bolivia, for instance, I had a problem with the drive shaft on the BMW. One of the pins unscrewed and fell out. So I was suddenly stuck in the middle of nowhere. I got a tow from an oil tanker, the driver of which couldn’t see me properly as he dragged me along over loose rock on a ten foot length of rope. The rope wasn’t actually tied to the bike. It was just looped around it, with me holding the end. But it was a scary experience. And a great experience. When I think of Bolivia, I think of that.
‘And there was some stunning scenery of course. It seemed endless. The best road was from Pisco to Ayacucho in Peru. It was breathtaking, and quite spiritual.
‘Another great road was in Argentina going towards Bariloche and it was just then that everything came together. It’s hard to explain exactly what I mean by that, but I think most people will understand. That road was more beautiful than anything I could imagine with a sparkling river beside it and fantastically sculptured mountains. It was as much an inner thing as an external thing.’
And the worst road?
‘That would be the same piece of road that knackered me the first time around. It ran from Gadaref in Sudan to Azezo in Ethiopia. Everything about it was terrible. The dust. The heat. The surface. Everything. But nobody will ever know now because it’s since been graded and bridges have been built. But I was completely wiped out. It took me 4 days to ride 250 miles the first time. I’ve never been so exhausted.’
I ask if at any time he ever thought of giving up.
‘No. I’m a great optimist. When I broke my leg in Kenya, I realised that if I’d wanted to give up, this would be the moment to do it. I got my leg stuck under one of the panniers whilst riding through mud. It was the first bone I’d ever broken in my life, and was very frightening at first. It was a straight, simple and amazingly painless break. It happened in the middle of a wilderness where there shouldn’t be anything at all to help me out. But in fact I was taken out within an hour to a hospital that happened to be just five miles away. So it wasn't as remote as it seemed. Nothing is anymore.’
Then I ask if riding a BMW, instead of a Triumph, spoiled the journey a little by making it too easy.
He nods and nods again. ‘It was all a little too easy. The BMW is more dependable and more powerful. The bike made me feel silly. With the Triumph we were equally undependable and were partners in misfortune. On the second trip, for the most part the bike hummed along and I suffered alone. And as I said, the roads have changed beyond recognition. In just a couple of decades it was unrecognisable in places. So yes, the BMW just plodded on without any real problems.’
‘Except the drive shaft in Bolivia?’
‘Except that,’ he agrees. ‘The thing is, you can’t really get lost anymore. The power of plastic money and technology today means that everything is accessible from anywhere. When I needed parts for the bike flown in, it was just a matter of a few telephone calls and a credit card. And because of that, it’s understandable that some of the challenge is gone.’
Didn’t that feel like cheating? Having parts shipped in?
‘No, I had spares flown out on the first journey too,’ he says, pragmatically. ‘And actually getting the parts out to La Paz was as difficult on the second journey as on the first. But keeping in touch with people is easier and faster.
'English is spoken more widely too, I noticed,’ he continues, ‘except in Arab countries. In North Africa, the first time around, almost everyone I stopped to talk to spoke English. But the second time, hardly anyone did. And it wasn’t, it seemed, that they were deliberately not talking English. It seemed that they genuinely couldn’t. As British influence declined, so did access to the language.’
It’s a sobering moment that warrants another drink. When they’re in and we’re comfortable again, I ask about the bikes.
‘One of them, Ted explains, is in Stephen Burgess’s garage. That’s the BMW R100. Steve is a private individual who gave me the bike to use. He keeps it in his house in Hampshire. The other one, the Triumph, is in the Coventry Museum of British Transport. There's a proper display for it. I haven’t seen the Triumph since they brought it down to CW Motorcycles in Dorset when I departed on my second trip.
‘I didn’t want to keep the Triumph. I was afraid that if I hung on to it, it would just fall apart. I was afraid that I wouldn’t pay attention. I put a lot of my life into that machine. But I’m not a collector of bikes. In fact, I’m amazed that people would want to collect bikes. In America, for instance, people have collections of twenty, thirty or even forty bikes. But I just don’t understand that at all.’
We chat about that for a moment and I tell him that there are plenty of bigger bike collections. And I’m not just thinking about Jay Leno. Ted looks genuinely amazed and mystified.'
I glance round. His publicist has found someone to talk to, but she’s got one eye on us ready to jump in should the need arise. Being the interviewer, I need to stay reasonably sober. So I’m sipping my beer like any old cheapskate, aware that my hand is constantly scratching notes and observations.
A little wistfully, Ted says, ‘Riding round the world was an important moment of my life. But the book was the defining thing, not the ride itself.
‘Would you consider going a third time?’ I ask.
‘No. I did that first trip at the right age and at the right time. In retrospect I would do that all again. I did it with the right attitude and equipment. By that, I mean mental equipment. I knew enough about the world to be able to put it all into some kind of meaningful context. If I’d been any younger, I would have seen it all differently, and might not have noticed some things at all; things I’d now want to notice.
'The second trip allowed me the opportunity to catalogue the changes. And being older, and perhaps wiser, I was able to expand the context. But I'm not sure what a third trip would achieve, and I'm probably too old anyway.’
‘If I had to buy just one of your books, which one should I buy?’ I ask.
‘I ought to say Dreaming of Jupiter,’ says Ted, ‘because it’s just going on sale. But to be honest, the first one is the one to read. But buy the second too. It makes a lot of sense.’
‘How exactly does the second book add to the first?’ I ask.
It’s a real question because of part of me is trying to ask Ted if going twice around the world is a bit like trying to lose your virginity all over again. You can go through the motions, but that first time dirty deed is a one-shot thing. But I resist the temptation, and for reasons that aren’t clear.
Ted says, ‘The second book does what it sets out to do, which is to give the reader a historical perspective and redefine the world. But hopefully it’s also entertaining and amusing and tells a travel story.’
I wait for something else to be said; a harder sell perhaps. But that’s it. That’s the reply, take it or leave it.
‘Is it good that you didn’t have so many pictures of the first trip?’ I ask.
My recollection of Jupiter's Travels is vague. But I don’t recall more than a few photos spread around four or eight pages.
‘I did actually have lots of pics,’ he replies. ‘But some were lost. Originally, I didn’t actually want any pics in the book. But the publishers did, and I finally agreed to include some. And I’ve since used them, and others, in slide shows which were a lot of fun and gives a completely new view of the journey. I’ve done many such shows in the States which have gone on for two or three hours. They're held at motorcycles rallies mostly in Ohio and … well lots of places. Either in a tent or a room.’
I ask a number of quick fire questions. My interview time is almost up, and so is my beer. And another brew is out of the question. So I ask about best bodges and essential kit.
‘Mini Mole Grips,’ Ted says, ‘and rubber bands—to hold your visor up. On the first trip I had an open face helmet with goggles and a visor. This time I had a full face helmet, but the visor would fly up sometimes and make a nuisance of itself. So I used rubber bands to control it. But seriously, I found lots of other uses for big, thick rubber bands. I recommend them.
‘The reason why I didn’t use a full face lid on the first trip,’ he continues, ‘was because I wanted people to be able to see me. You have to remember that in those days the world was a very different place. Motorcycles themselves were very rare, and I didn’t want to have my face covered and then come on like some creature from Mars. It was important to try and make sure that people saw you as a real person. On the second trip, that simply wasn’t an issue. Everyone and his aunt had since been around the world.’
I ask about his immediate plans.
‘The permanent theme of my life is building. I’m building my own house, trying to turn a barn into a home. All this larking about with books and things is getting in the way. I’m a writer primarily and something of a builder. That’s what I do. I live on a piece of land that I bought with the proceeds of Jupiter's Travels. I’ve been there 25 years. I built a little house for myself, and another for my mother who is now gone. I was more recently living in her house and realised that if I could rent out both houses and find somewhere else to live, I could live off the proceeds. So I’m building myself into the barn. I don’t have any pension to speak off. So now I’ve made a small part of the barn habitable and I’m working on the rest of it.’
‘What do you think of Robert Pirsig?’ I ask abruptly; the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
I hadn’t really wanted to ask that. It's too obvious a question.
Ted thinks for a moment, but it’s clear that the answer is ready and waiting. He’s probably been asked this one a hundred times. But his natural politeness makes it seem as if it’s an original question.
‘I'm afraid I don’t like Robert Pirsig’s book,’ he says, ‘and I wonder how many other people really do. I don’t like the way he uses the Quality thing as a noun. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. It’s an adverb. I got frustrated by that and didn’t finish the book.’
I remind him of what Pirsig said; something about Quality being an event; the moment when the subject becomes aware of the object.
Ted laughs a self-deprecating laugh and says, ‘Well, I may not have got that far. The best travel book I know of is Robert Fulton’s One Man Caravan (published by Whitehorse Press). I think that’s the one to read.’
Ted’s publicist is on the move again. She’s glancing at her watch, and I check mine. I’m ninety minutes into my allotted hour, and Ted’s just started to relax. In the next few minutes I learn that he likes jazz, and all kinds of music. I learn that the last really great modern book he read was Ian McEwan's Saturday. He doesn’t watch US TV. It’s “terrible”. But he's discovered HBO (whatever that is) and watches things like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. There also a postal DVD system he uses sometimes.
I see a note to myself scratched on my jotter and ask why he settled in America? What was wrong with Britain?
‘It was a mistake really,’ he replies. ‘I thought that I could save my marriage, but didn’t. My wife was also English. We needed to make a break and decided on California. It was easy for me because I was able to go as a Times correspondent. But it was expensive to get a Green Card, and I was there for about 7 years before I applied for one. Now I have dual citizenship.’
And being a Californian, what does he think of Governor Schwarzenegger?
‘Oh, he’s much, much better than I could ever have imagined. He’s turned into a very impressive politician and actually does things that need doing. He seems to be able to get above the politics and not get so wrapped up in his own ego. He actually admitted that he was wrong recently when he set a program with a whole series of initiatives, and they were all defeated. He said, "Okay, I’ve learned a lesson. Thank you. I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m going to do something different", and moved on.’
And so am I. My time’s up, Ted's beginning to look a little too relaxed, and Ted’s publicist looks as if everything except her body is already five miles away, so I close my notebook and get to my feet.
Ted rises and shakes my hand. He looks as if there are a lot of things he might have said, but has held them back. He's trying to sell a book, after all, and needs to watch how much he siphons away in interviews.
“Where to now?” I ask.
“Home,” he says. 'I've been away too long and need to get back for a while. Keep in touch.'
It sounds like he means it, so I take the remark at face value and quietly leave.
Ted Simon's web site: www.jupitalia.com