CHRIS SCOTT: ADVENTURES IN MOTORCYCLING – reviewed
Long before Ewan and Charlie, before Mondo Enduro – in fact before pretty much everyone bar the legendary Ted Simon – there was Chris Scott. But let’s put this into perspective: almost since the genesis of motorcycling, people have headed off astride the old iron horse for parts unknown. The difference being that way back in the day, no one bothered writing about it….
Too many subsequent accounts boiled down to an ‘I’m so fucking hard’ subtext, however enticingly dressed up. Hopefully, adventure contains an epiphanic quality, a sense of connecting to a greater whole. The problem being that the greater whole may not be that interested: like accounts of dreams or drug experiences, traveller’s tales often leave the listener / reader crushed by genre familiarity – iffy border crossings, desert dawns and dry river beds effortlessly blend into one tedious whole. These days, the average bike mag reader is the most hard bitten explorer, wearily bracing him/herself for yet another encounter with a self proclaimed rebel on the road. But Chris Scott always had a nice line in deprecation and practical objectivity – and best of all, despite using the dreaded A word in the title, Adventures in Motorcycling is not really an adventure book – unless autobiography is adventure be default.
AiM is a contextualised account of growing up and into bikes, and the context is 1980s London – with the fag end of the 70s offered up for good measure. In bike circles, old skool London couriers have a little bit of extra cred about them: they served in an elite regiment, composed of only the most obsessive squaddies. The cred comes from the fact that back in those pre email days of a booming city, you could make serious wedge on the circuit – and the work just kept on coming. These people were thrashing about on shit tyres, with iffy brakes, minimal protection and leaky gear in all conditions, while attempting to do as many drops as possible. A courier’s bike needed to be practical and bombproof, in pretty much every sense. The reason Scott got through so many steeds was partly in a doomed attempt to reconcile soulful machines with the grinding utilitarianism required for the job.
And yet… AiM isn’t really about motorcycles. It’s about a lifestyle which included biking. Not lifestyle in an Ikea, i-everything sense: lifestyle in an anarcho punk sense, with a sizeable hit of Mad Max chucked in. It reads like a Good Squat Guide, and it’s when describing that lost world that Scott shifts up a notch: one suspects the general reader will be more interested in the social anthropology than accounts of persuading an SS900 to manoeuvre around Soho. There is sustenance in AiM for a non bike readership: Scott has an eye for human detail and foible – the emergence of Essex man, the contradictions implicit in Class War and its enthusiastic proponents, the machinations of squatting. The 80s urban underclass described in the book seem much further away in time and space than thirty odd years, which is doubtless part of the interest: this was a post punk world with the threat of armageddon still hanging heavily in the air ….. Scott’s account has an authenticity about it that no 80s night can hope to match. And big hair apart, compared to the 60s or 70s, the next ten years remains relatively unexplored sociological territory. Despite the threat, the squalor, and the rampant mania for Mammon, maybe this was the last decade of freedom: minimal surveillance, less data, less interference. Scott articulates that feeling, and this sensibility alone makes the book worth reading.
Nevertheless, the adventurer / explorer is still bursting to get out: we’re climbing in Snowdonia, off piste in South London, crossing the Sahara and diving in Australia, before finding a bunch of credulous individuals to chaperone to distant lands. With mixed results. But the real adventure in AiM is closer to home: existential, internal – a young man getting to know himself in the forbidden city, at once recognisable and distant.