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4th February 2009

Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon
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Three decades ago, Ted Simon rode a Triumph Tiger some 63,000 miles through 54 countries on a journey which took four years. Does the story still seem relevant today?...

All too often a book that is trumpeted as a 'must read' proves to be at best a let down or at worst a crashing disappointment. Just sometimes it even plumbs the depths of 'The Da Vinci Code'. Some books don't age well and most of the best-sellers of 30 years ago wouldn't get shelf space in Waterstones these days.

Times change, people change and unless you're a top crime writer, had an appalling but now lucrative childhood or are a C-list 'celebrity' with a decent ghost writer then you're up against it these days. Strange then that a travel book written 36 years ago by a man who's only a household name in his own household should still be a steady seller.

My copy of 'Jupiter's Travels' by Ted Simon carries the cover blurb 'The inspiration for Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor's Long Way Round'. Having read both I get the impression that Ted Simon's journey was the one that Ewan McGregor really wanted to make. 'Journey' being the key word here, as Simon says the whole thing was about the journey, not the bike, the distance or the sense of achievement. He wanted to go out into the world and hopefully find himself by experiencing life, sharing the world as others know it and live in it, finding his limits, weaknesses and attributes.

There's a whole lot more to it than that, it's not another Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, although both make an appearance within its pages. 'Jupiter's Travels' is a well-balanced mixture of Simon's thoughts, evolving beliefs and full of insights into different cultures as well as being a very good tale of an epic motorcycle journey. Not least it's an historical snapshot of a recently passed era, when the Meriden co-operative was trying to find its feet and the Africa he passes through was experiencing the death throes of colonialism. The casual racism which Simon describes in South Africa and what was then Rhodesia will make most readers cringe today.

'Jupiter's Travels' is a very honest book. Simon tells us tales several times that show his weaknesses, then acknowledges these and tells us of his regret. One such episode demonstrates his attitude towards the beggers he comes across; an incidence of what was either a very wise decision or total cowardice, amongst others. It looks inward, into Simon's mind, and outwards when he asks us to embrace the world and all its differences rather than thinking they're threatening or just plain scary.

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He bizarrely uses the various means of what is best called anal hygiene as an example of how we all have our ways of doing things while often finding the way 'foreigners' do them bizarre, strange or even disgusting. Simon's point being that we do what we do. Just because someone else does it differently or has different ideas doesn't make anyone wrong, just different. Those people who we think strange and possibly primitive might well have exactly the same view of us so we should accept differences and try to understand others, not condemn them. In one memorable part he has to leave India quickly for Britain and suffers instant culture shock. He struggles to understand Britain after weeks in India, then goes back to India and experiences exactly the same feelings as he swaps cultures again.

The Triumph Tiger 100 Simon rides comes out of it very well. Things go wrong but, given the nature of his journey, they were always going to on what was basically a stock road bike used on some pretty horrible roads, across deserts, ridden over rocks during river crossings and subjected to some pretty extreme conditions over a period of four years. There was very little that Simon couldn't at least bodge up at the roadside to continue his journey or fix himself once he'd got the parts until there were adequate facilities to fix it properly.

Inevitably Simon's book and 'The Long Way Round' will be compared, starting in the next sentence in fact. Ted Simon's book is very much his own slant on things and like all good books it's almost as if you can hear his voice as you read. Ewan and Charley's book is either ghost-written or it should have been -- smacks of 'this is the book we banged out to sell alongside the DVD'.

At the start of his book Ewan McGregor does seem inspired by Ted Simon's book and wants to experience the world in the same way, discover his inner self and feel the Zen of the rider becoming a part of his environment as Simon describes so well. Charley Boorman just wants to ride bikes very quickly and clock up loads of miles. Simon takes just what he can fit on his bike, McGregor has a full back up crew and people in London to help him through the borders that Simon has to negotiate himself. Simon rides alone, essential for the kind of journey he wants to make. McGregor seems from his comments at the inception of his journey to be looking for the same thing but it was never going to happen with two travelling companions, radio contact and a big support crew following closely behind. Maybe he's just a phoney? Maybe that's an unfair comment!

When Simon hears a constant whining noise it turns out to be his piston rings. McGregor suffers from the same thing but it's the incessant complaining of Mr Boorman through his headset... Simon carries an inflatable bed, McGregor is stuck with a wet blanket. Simon's journey ends with him having learned something about himself, the world and his place in it. Charley and Ewan's trip ends with lucrative media deals and the adulation of the general public. Simon went on a journey, the other two went a long way on a motorcycle.

So, for once a 'must read' lived up to its billing. I could relate to a lot of Simon's thoughts. He entertained me, educated me and made me think more than a few times, which is always a good thing. He has the strength to write about his own weaknesses and the humility to write about the world without seeming to think it revolves around him.

If there is a fault with 'Jupiter's Travels' it's that to many it might seem dated. I was fascinated to read about the bad old days of apartheid, countries that don't even exist any more or have changed beyond all recognition. Other readers might be confused or even just not interested. Rhodesia will mean nothing at all to younger readers, for example. Whatever your view on that, 'Jupiter's Travels' is still worth a read. It still sells steadily over 30 years after it was written and is still the benchmark for motorcycle travel books (but might not have been if 'Long Way Round' hadn't been such a lazy effort).

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Dave Blendell

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Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon

  • Published by Penguin, ISBN 0140054103
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