Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Wind In My Wheels, Josie Dew (1992)

Warner 0 7515 0249 9 paperback 368pp £6.99

An account of journeys made in the late 1980s including most of Europe, the UK, Ireland, North Africa, Canada, India and Romania

This was Dew’s first book (she has written seven at the time of 2009). An enthusiastic cyclist since her childhood in the south of England, she started touring more ambitiously in her mid teens. The cover promises that, at the time of this publication, she has covered ‘four continents, 36 countries and 80,000 miles’, and her accounts of most of them are contained in this book. Whereas her subsequent books are based on journeys that appear to have been devised to deliver books, this is the summation of her travels up to this point.

She makes little of her courage or her eccentricity – although both are there in charming spade fulls. Precious few young women dedicate themselves to adventuring by bicycle, and yet Dew makes it sound like the most normal, natural thing imaginable. Not only that, but she fashioned her working life around her desire for regular long cycle adventures – she runs a catering service, towing ingredients around London on a trailer behind her bike.

Her approach is impressionistic and humorous. There is occasional cultural contextualisation – Granada is the ‘city that Lorca loved’, but he was shot close by early in Spain’s civil war, she explains. But for the most part, she is more interested in shopkeepers, bed and breakfast proprietors and encounters with passers by, than culture, architecture or topography. Much space is also devoted to the challenges of cycling in countries where a lone female on a bicycle is a rare visitor.

Here she is, for example, toward the end of a lengthy passage on the difficulties she had with a routine bodily function in Morocco.

“I sprang full-bladdered from my cycle to retire safely behind a rock, which promptly came to life. It turned out to be a big and startled Arab who had been peacefully snoozing among the genuine rocks in the landscape”. Thereafter Dew developed a technique whereby a cycling cape doubled as a portaloo.

At times her prose is pedestrian – her nose was ‘red as Rudolph’s’, Poland was ‘poverty stricken’ and Finland was ‘flat’. But the quick fire jump from country to country keeps the pages turning.
At this distance, the one thing missing from the books is some more precise dates (which may have been sorted out in more recent editions, or might perhaps in editions to come). For example, her travels in Ireland are nearly always troubled by fears of the IRA – an interesting indicator of how the Provisionals got into the British psyche during their 30 years of active campaigning. Dew crosses into Hungary ‘after the collapse of the Cold War’. But if we know precisely when this was, her observations would have greater value today.

Nonetheless, the journal bowls along pleasurably over an enormous number of miles – and provides a very reassuring proof that whatever is the addictive magic of cycling, both sexes are susceptible.

PS January 09

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