Monday, December 29, 2008

Riding on the Edge

By John Hall.

“Sure we got into some shootings and serious shit. But most of it was just good, clean fun, like drinking beer all night and standing up on the seat of your motorcycle, drunk and without a helmet, at three o’clock in the morning, while you blew every red light on Hempstead Turnpike.”

I suppose one could debate whether that is an apt description of “good, clean fun”, but what I found quite interesting about this book was that Hall describes a 1960’s outlaw scene that was totally devoid of any criminal activity of a serious nature – no drug dealing, no trafficking, no prostitution – just “good, clean fun”. And so I suspect that there’s either a lot Hall left out of the narrative or there’s quite a bit of revisionist history being presented here.

But while Hall may have been selective in his recollections, Riding on the Edge still opens a window on the outlaw culture at the time and the early days of the Pagans as they began their march to become, according to the book’s jacket, “the most violent criminal organization in America”.

The story line is pretty typical and quite repetitive – getting drunk, taking offense, trashing bars, screwing underaged groupies, internal power struggles, who’s righteous and who isn’t. Reading about all that is good clean fun in its own way but what really differentiates this book from others of the same ilk are Hall’s periodic detours into the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Mennonites and the Brotherhood of Zion, observations on Polish family traditions, and so on. Finding these gems scattered among the wreckage of yet another trashed bar or run-in with the authorities is what makes the book readable and kept me turning the pages (I read it in 2 days). It’s still not great literature, but it’s a decent, entertaining read.

Oh, and one last nit to pick: the inside cover says, “In the 1960s, John Hall, a Harley-riding hell-raiser hooked up with the Pagans...”. According to the book, Hall rode a 1963 Triumph TR-6.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Riding with Rilke

By Ted Bishop.

Ted Bishop is an English professor at the University of Alberta. He is also an avid motorcyclist. So when an opportunity presents itself to combine both his passions, he leaps at the chance, and the result is quite an amazing tale.

At first I wasn't too sure how the motorcycle/university research pairing would work, but Bishop pulls it off and delivers a very good read indeed. Part travelogue, part literary research project, part passion for motorcycling, this book has it all.

From the portrayal of his (real life) accident to the narrative on how he developed his obsession with Ducati’s, the story has a feel of authenticity to it – been there, done that, got the t-shirt – and long-time riders will be able to relate with (mostly) fond recollection to Bishop's insights and humour. His brother’s instructions on how to bump-start a Ducati 250 cc Mach 1 took me back a lot of years (“You put it in gear, hold in the clutch, and push it. When you get running you hop on it side-saddle and let the clutch out at the same time, then hop off and keep running. It’ll catch, and then you pull the clutch back in and rev the throttle.”). And his descriptions of the feel of a truly 'great' motorcycle as you throw it through the curves and twisties of your favourite off-the-beaten-path riding roads are right on the mark. As for the agony of bad-weather riding – Bishop’s narrative had me shivering from the remembrance of water dribbling down the back of my neck on rides taken 30 years ago.

Interesting and well-written, Riding with Rilke deserves a place in any motorcycling library – right between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Long Way Round.

The Eye in the Door

By Pat Barker.

The Eye in The Door is the second book of Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. Whereas Regeneration focused on the relationship between Dr. William Rivers and Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, this book deals with life on the home front in 1918 and the relationships between one soldier, an intelligence officer, and the various conscientious objectors, war resisters, and homosexuals he comes into contact with in London as part of his duties.

But that soldier, Billy Prior, was also not left unscathed by his time at the front. After a breakdown, he was removed from active combat duties and underwent several months of therapy at Craiglockhart. When ‘cured’ he was attached to the Department of Munitions in their Intelligence Division. It’s during his tenure there that we see him begin to break down emotionally and psychologically. Eventually he is forced to consult with the one man who had helped him previously – Dr. Rivers.

One tends to assume that the war effort was universally supported in England – how else to explain the continued recruitment of young men to throw into the meat grinder of the Western Front – but there was an active and organised resistance to the war in England at the time. The Eye in the Door offers an interesting glimpse of that world and with a narrative that is both compelling and disturbing, Barker delivers a fascinating read that offers one more perspective on The Great War and how it changed a generation.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

At The Sharp End

By Tim Cook.

Volume One of a two-volume set, At The Sharp End is the compelling story of the Canadian Corps in the first two years of The Great War. From the first significant Canadian engagement in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1916 and on to the charnel house they called the Somme some 18 months later, Cook has taken the harrowing experiences of the infantrymen – those at the sharp end – and has woven them into a gripping, almost page-turning, narrative. And I say ‘almost’ only because his descriptions of life at the front are so powerful and the narrative so intense that the reader, like the front-line troops themselves, periodically has to withdraw to decompress and catch one’s breath.

The Western Front during the early years of The Great War was a brutal place to be. Life expectancy was often measured in days and hours. Friends and comrades were wounded, killed, and oftentimes simply disappeared in a “red mist” during the continued shelling that took place 24 hours a day along much of the front. Cook takes these facts and intertwines them with the battlefield history of major engagements, attacks, counter-attacks, and strategy, never losing sight of the terrible human cost.

Books – both fiction and non-fiction – describing the horrors of the front are not uncommon but what makes Cook’s account so forceful is that he has extensively researched and liberally uses excerpts from war diaries (actually forbidden, but fortunately for historians many men kept them anyway) and letters home. It is these entries and letters that constantly bring the reader back to the fact that these were real men, with wives and lovers and parents, who were thrust into this maelstrom and who tried to fight the good fight. Some survived, many didn’t.

The letters themselves were surprisingly blunt, especially considering they were going home to worried family members and friends an ocean removed from the carnage – John N. Beaton wrote to his father of the first German gas attack of the war: “It was the poisonous gases that killed a lot of our poor fellows. They did not have a chance to fight.” And some were perversely poetic with the imagery leaving nothing to the imagination – Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson wrote of The Somme: “When [the shells] struck, the ground looked like Resurrection Day with the dead elbowing their way into daylight and forcing the earth from their eyes.” One cannot read a line like that and simply dismiss it without emotion.

In addition to the letters and diaries, Cook includes facts and other details about the war in general and specific battles themselves that are not easily distilled from the more academic, if I can use that term, analyses of the war. For example, Cook reports that “an estimated 100 million 18-pounder shells were fired by the British and Dominion forces during the war – the equivalent of 44 shells, per second, every second of the day, for the duration of the 1,561 days of the war.” That’s simply an astonishing number, especially when one considers that’s the output from only one specific calibre of gun, in support of one army, on one side of the war. And if that doesn’t adequately describe the sheer mass of artillery fire that rained down on the troops at the front consider this, during the 5-month battle in 1916 “... parts of the Somme were subjected to more than 1,000 shells per square metre.” One square metre – just about the size of the chair I sat in while reading this book.

Heavily researched and well written, At The Sharp End is an excellent read for the serious military history scholar as well as for someone like myself who has an abiding interest in The Great War but more from the viewpoint of the men and women who were there. It’s an important addition to any World War I library, and I can’t wait to get to get my hands on Volume Two.