Sunday, 9 February 2014

Uneasy Rider by Mike Carter – another travel masterpiece

The mark of a good writer is that when you read their work they take you on a journey. It may be a fictional journey, it may be factual, but either way, it's a journey and one you don't want to end.
Uneasy Rider by Mike Carter – an excellent read

In fact, it's more than just being taken on a journey, it's a kind of virtual friendship, if that makes sense, between author and reader.

When I read One Man & His Bike last year, I loved every page of it because I felt I was on the ride with Mike as he pedalled anti-clockwise around the coast of England. In a way, Carter became a companion of mine, somebody with whom I had shared something special and when I approached the end of the book, I remember feeling a little apprehensive about the future; it was a bit like those awful moments when you're on holiday as a kid and the end of the vacation draws close. You don't want to face the inevitability, the pending doom, that goes hand-in-hand with packing up and going home.

So, after a wander down to my local Waterstone's and with a little bit of time to kill, I bumped into my old friend Mike Carter again – not literally, but by picking up his first travel book – Uneasy Rider – I rekindled the relationship and found myself embarking upon another journey with him, this time on a BMW RS1200.

It was an excellent book, as I expected and, in essence, it is all about a lone road trip by Mike throughout Northern, Eastern and Western Europe. It starts with a divorce – Mike and his wife called it a day – and then Mike, pondering the meaning of life, the universe and everything, treks off to Wales to pass his bike test – in true male mid-life crisis fashion – before heading off across the English Channel and beyond on what turns out to be a tremendous adventure of self discovery and everything else.

What always bugs me about travel books is the questions left unanswered that begin to niggle. The big one, of course, is always: how the hell can he afford to do it? Hasn't he got a job to do? Responsibilities? Well, in Uneasy Rider, Mike explains how and I was glad about this because, in One Man & His Bike, while I enjoyed the book immensely, there was part of me that felt conned, albeit minutely. Nobody, I remember thinking, simply cycles to work and thinks, en route, 'oh, sod it, I'll just go round the coast of England instead'. This is implied in the accompanying blurb to the book, making it seem as if Mike didn't inform his employer, didn't even bother doing anything when, in reality, he must have put in some kind of planning. I feel the same way when I watch Top Gear's travel-based challenges when 'the boys' try to make you think that cars rolling off cliff tops happened by accident when, I'd imagine, there were all sorts of bureaucratic hoops through which the programme's producers had to jump.

As a journalist, of course, Mike wrote a regular column on his Uneasy Rider trip, which must have kept him solvent, but he also released some equity on his flat in South West London and took on a tenant for while he was away travelling. Good, I thought, at least I now know that he's just like everybody else and can't simply afford to ride off into the sunset without due consideration to his responsibilities.

"I released a wedge of equity from my apartment so money shouldn't be an issue. Soon after I rented it out for six months so if I bottled it and came home early, I'd have nowhere to live, an incentive of sorts to keep going when the going got tough."

Being a pushbike rider, I felt I had something in common with Mike when I read One Man & His Bike, but not being a motorcyclist I didn't have that same affinity, although it didn't matter. This wasn't a book about motorcycling, it was a travel book that involved a motorcycle.

Mike got himself embroiled in the whole adventure after too many lagers at the Observer Christmas party and felt that he couldn't really back out after he'd sobered up and remembered exactly what had been said. "The last thing a man having a mid-life crisis wants to do is admit that he's been writing cheques with his drunken mouth that he has no means of cashing," writes Mike in an early chapter of the story.

And then, after organising everything, he sets off in true Mike Carter fashion: with a kind of idea where he might be heading, but no real set plans. It pays not to be too organised. I think if I was going to embark upon something like a mammoth bike ride around the world or a motorcycling trip to the back of beyond, I'd probably just get on the bike and go – alright, I'd sort out my finances first – and deal with 'stuff' en route rather than pore over maps and travel guides prior to departure.

Mike meets a lot of interesting people on his travels, some funny, some not so funny. He enjoys time with an Australian couple who, like Mike, are travelling huge distances on a motorcycle, but ultimately – and for the sake of the book – he opts to travel alone. I read somewhere that Paul Theroux believes that real travel is done alone without the influence of other people and I think he's right. When you're alone you go where the mood takes you and don't have to kowtow to anybody else. This, by and large, is what Mike does, but occasionally he hooks up with fellow motorcyclists.

Throughout the book, Mike tries his hand at self-analysis and discusses his failed marriage and other stuff – his relationship with his father – that are clearly bugging him. He hopes the adventure will offer up some answers and in the end it does and he returns home a changed man – for the better, I hasten to add.

Uneasy Rider is every ounce as good as One Man & His Bike and once again, I didn't want it to finish. I remember when reading One Man & His Bike how, sitting in a hotel in Irvine, California, I came to the conclusion that the absolute height of good living for me was that very moment, having lunch in a virtually empty hotel restaurant, a glass or two of Cabernet, good food and One Man & His Bike. I felt the same way about Uneasy Rider even if I did finish it on a train from Redhill to Purley.

I sincerely hope that Mike is going to embark upon another adventure as I look forward to joining him on the ride or the walk or the drive – bring it on.

For a review of One Man & His Bike by Mike Carter, click here.

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