Wheel alignment

Wednesday 29 August 2012

A motorcycle book par excellence!

by Neil Bradford

Motorcycling tends to attract independent-minded people, those who like both freedom and the extra challenge and thrill of 2 wheels compared with 4.  Perhaps it's also fair to say that most of us are free spirits to some extent with a few eccentricities thrown in for good measure!  Something to be proud of in this day and age when the pressures to conform, standardise and sanitise are ever-present.

This anthology covers motorcycling tales from the early 20th century right through to the present day written by both sexes. Some of the writers were unknown to me before reading this book, others are household names.  They have different writing styles (which is part of the joy of this book) but no matter who they are, the same passions and sensations that we experience as motorcyclists are shared by all of the writers, irrespective of their status or experiences.  I found myself nodding in agreement, grinning and sometimes moved as they committed their feelings to paper.

The title of the book comes from the Aramaic word Boanerges which T.E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) called each successive Brough Superior motorcycle which he owned. It literally means Sons of Thunder and it sits well!

The feats of some of the early writers almost defy belief, like Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron who in 1935, rode a 600cc single cylinder Panther with a sidecar from London through Africa, including the Sahara Desert.  Similar journeys today with all the modern equipment are still a major undertaking, let alone nearly 80 years ago!

Whilst T.E Lawrence was serving in the Royal Air Force, he describes riding through the English country lanes at full throttle on a twice-weekly shopping trip to buy sausages and bacon. All pretty innocuous but he then adds the sentence that every motorcyclist will identify with:  

"For months, I have been making my evening round, twice a week, riding a hundred miles for the joy of it and picking up the best food cheapest, over half the countryside".

We all know about the journey, not the destination being the important bit, don't we?

The fabled Lawrence of Arabia with his Brough
(file photo)

LJK (Len) Setright was an English eccentric who gave up law for motoring journalism.  His command of the English language is simply superb and he was also gifted with a deep technical knowledge of anything automotive.  Even though his essays are often complex with rich language, it was one paragraph written several decades ago which caught my eye as I thought it only applied to the modern world.  He's on his motorcycle en route to play in an orchestra:

" ....I almost got to Rochester to encounter the tail of what proved to be a 6 mile queue. As carefully as one does in such circumstances, I rode past it all - and was dismayed by the anger and hostility of all those stationary motorists, blaring their horns or even waving fists at me.  There was no way in which I could have been harming them, but the thought that I was going and they were not aroused furious jealousy".

And we've all felt a similar frisson of malicious satisfaction, haven't we?

The wonderfully eccentric "LJK"
(file photo)

Very few people will not have heard of flambouyant American writer, Hunter S Thompson.  He was asked by Cycle World magazine to road test a Ducati Superbike and his narrative is largely about that experience.  He notes that he's not without mental and physical scars from previous accidents, yet can't help himself from taking it out and thrashing it within an inch of it's (and his) life.  This sentence of his sums it up rather neatly:

"A thoroughbred Cafe Racer will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest diminishing-radius loop since Ghengis Khan invented the corkscrew."

Yep, if most of us are honest, we've been there and done that!

Hunter S Thompson
(file photo)

Valentino Rossi (aka The Doctor) must be pretty close to a household name, even among non-motorcycling families. His book extract gives a wonderful insight to the world of Grand Prix racing where the very top riders not only know their own bikes intimately, but their opponents and the characteristics of their bikes too. He says

"You've studied your main opponent's trajectories, the way he takes every turn; you know where he's strongest and where his weaknesses are, you know where he's vulnerable if you attack him.  It's the ultimate rush."

He describes his battle with Max Biaggi on the last race of the year for the World Championship title.  Biaggi is leading, Rossi has sussed out where Biaggi is weakest but daren't try to pass him too early as it will only work once - chess on 2 wheels!  So he leaves it until the last lap and the last tough corner of that lap.  The mark of a true champion with that much at stake.  Two rivals at their absolute limit - what incredible reading.

Valentino Rossi
(Motorcycle USA)

I bought the electronic version of the book though Amazon.  There are no photos but this in no way detracts because the writing is so powerful and evocative.  Don't know if there are photos in the hard copy version. The e-book cost ~$10.  I would have happily paid a lot more for it.

There are 28 separate essays/book extracts and everyone a gem in its own right.  The other great thing about this anthology is now being able to track down some of the original books from which these extracts came to provide many more years of enjoyable reading.  Overall, this is the best motorcycling book I've read for years.  Although the subject matter of each story is quite different, they all carry the assertion which we already know.......  motorcyclists are different from most of the world's population, motorcycling is not about getting from A to B, motorcycling lifts the soul.


  1. I like how you find these great reads Geoff..I will gently remind my Children that Sunday is fathers day, and rather than cold baked beans on toast (served with lashings of love) they could donate there pocket money for me to to purchase the above book....worth a try I reckon!

    1. Hi Rog,
      Worth a try indeed. In fact, why not make it a certainty and download it on their behalf? When our kids were younger, I used to buy them CD's I liked so that I could borrow them. It worked well until they learned to retaliate. Just don't fall into that trap!!

      Have a happy Father's day!!!

  2. Thanks Geoff. I'll be looking for that one!

    1. Hi Canajun,
      I don't think you'll be disappointed. I'll definitely be looking for some of the books the extracts came from, even if it means scouring second hand shops.

  3. I will have some time available for reading in the next few weeks so I've ordered the paperback version from 'The Book Depository' in the UK. AUD16.10 & free delivery.


    1. Gidday Jules!
      A good find - I may yet buy a hard copy so thanks for the link. Certainly a book that's worth reading more than once as well as the books the extracts came from.

  4. Thanks Geoff for showing us a great book to look for. I was thinking that it might not be worth getting the e-book cause you'd miss out on the pics, and yeah I think I'll see if I can get a paper version.

  5. Thanks Geoff for the great review. I think I'll be on the hunt for the book now. The excerpts have drawn me in.

  6. Hi Brenda,
    Hope that you enjoy it as much as I did! I don't know whether the hard copy has photos either. I simply scouted around for some appropriate file photos to show some of the interesting characters!

  7. Hi Brandy, my pleasure! Some of the featured women have had some unbelievable adventures yet this is the first time I've ever seen anything written about them. I expect to see you on an intrepid journey soon dressed up in crinoline in some impossibly hot country!

  8. Geoff - an excellent pick, thanks.

    1. Hi Karen!

      No worries - I think there's something for everyone in there. With your great adventures, I think you'll particularly identify with the writings of the pioneering female riders - really inspiring stuff for everyone.

    2. Thank you, Geoff, so much for such a positive and enthusiastic review. I'm delighted that you enjoyed the book and the extraordinary characters within and understood so clearly what I was trying to achieve. The bond of the motorcycle unites so many of us over the world and my colleagues and friends in New Zealand have been so supportive of the book. I'd really love to hear what your followers think of SONS OF THUNDER. Keep upright as they say! Best regards, Neil Bradford

    3. Hello Neil,
      I'm staggered that you've seen my review and honoured that you've found time to reply - thanks so much! I think you've done the motorcycling community a real service with the anthology, capturing those almost intangible things which makes us all so passionate about riding.

      The writings of TE Lawrence in particular go back a long way for me. The book "the Rolls Royce of Motorcycles" about the Brough Superior, including some TE Lawrence's work was my "O" level school prize for physics a lifetime ago!

      Incidentally, I've just checked the blog stats and 173 people have read the review since it was published a week ago - let's hope it adds to your sales!

      Thank you again for the kind words and very best wishes.....

  9. OK Kindle version here I come. I have actually ridden a ss 80 after relinining the front brake for a chap, I ventured up to 30mph and chickened out shutting everything off and taking 1/2 mile to stop! Took both of us to get it back on it's rear axle stand! Smallest front drum brake I have ever seen had to fit asbestos rope linings as the diameter was too small to find pre formed shoes......

  10. My word Dylan, you must be REALLY old having ridden a Brough. (Only joking, haha!). Not many people that can lay claim to having been on one of those, let alone having worked on one! There's a chap in Auckland who has built and races a replica. You'll have to come up to the classic races at Pukekohe in February - well worth seeing.

    Enjoy the book mate!

  11. A friend of our Rugby club president asked if I could see to his bikes brakes as he found out I worked as a Toolmaker at the AP group that included Lockheed Hydraulic Brake Co. He wanted the brakes sericeing and the cylinders ckecking for wear and scoring. The brakes I relined and the cylinders were in excellent condition. Starting the bike was a work of art with so many levers to play with!! Jo and myself walked to Lawrences grave whilst we were camping in the area....very down grade for the man's achievement in life.
    The one big attraction with the Brough was a very heavy Stainless fuel tank....it was 40+ years ago.

    1. Dylan,
      How cool is that? Sad that Lawrence's grave didn't match his status though.

  12. Replies
    1. Excellent Steve! You'll love it, especially with all the travelling you've done. It really has captured what the essence of motorcycling is all about. Enjoy!


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