Monday, April 16, 2012

Josie Dew on the Loose

English touring cyclist Josie Dew had already written four books about her travels all over the world when she set out on a ride around the perimeter of Great Britain recounted in her book "Slow Coast Home." She was well enough known that she was regularly recognized, though one person thought she was Dervla Murphy, her Irish counterpart who has written even more books than Dew, but is more than 30 years her senior.

Anyone who had seen Dew on the cover of one of her books or knew much about her would have immediately identified her if they saw her with her overloaded bike. She is most distinctive--a petite five feet tall with floppy flaxon-hair unadorned by a helmet. Though she was "five years off forty" when she undertook this trip, those who didn't know her often mistook her for someone much younger. One of the many recurring themes of the book, along with people recognizing her and people aghast at all the gear on her bike and eating bananas, was people asking if she was in her "gap year," taking a break in her studies to travel. She took it as a minor insult that people thought her so young and that she was just off on a minor diversion to figure out what to do with her life.

She had long ago committed her life to bicycle touring. When she was 12 years old she rode 360 miles in seven days to England's Land's End with her older brother. She left school as soon as she could at 16 to cycle to Africa--"sitting on saddles was more my style than sitting on seats." She has traveled with boy friends, and was occasionally joined on this trip by her current boy friend, a carpenter who she refers to as "the builder," but the majority of her travels have been on her own, as she prefers. At times she met other cyclists, some who knew who she was and others who didn't, who wanted to accompany her for a few miles or a few hours or a few days. She discouraged all of them, never sure if they might be a serial killer, even a guy who presented her with a banana knowing that they were her lifeblood.

Her femininity and her cuteness attracted attention of all sorts, some comical and some boorish. Men and woman showered her with a wide array of distinctly English terms of endearment, as in "That's quite a load you've got, me petal." She was most commonly referred to as "luv" and "love," though she doesn't explain the difference. There was also an occasional "my lovely" and "luvvie," and the series of "lassie," "my lassie" and "young lassie." She was also addressed as "pet" along with "me petal," as well as "sunshine" and "sweetheart" and "me darlin'," none of which she took offense to. It is the English way. On the unwelcome side were comments of "nice arse" or "lucky seat." She silently berated one offender as a "cheeky bastard."

The book could have used a glossary to explain its many Englishisms, many more than any of her other books starting with "The Wind in My Wheels" in 1992. But the book was already over 500 pages and it would have required another chapter to explain clobber, clunder, clappers. cock-a-hoop, moggies, kerfuffle, widdle, bladdered, shuddered, shilly-shally, doo-lalley and all the others. There were also expressions such as "How the sweet Douglas Adams was I supposed to know that," such as I often wondered about her use of words.

At times it seemed as if she were making up a language of her own. It was a distinct possibility, as she's not so much a writer as a player of words. No play on words is too low or too absurd for her. She passes up no opportunity, sometimes forcing some conglomeration she has concocted into her narrative. She ran off a long string of family and pet names beginning with the letter "P" that she said would not come out of the mouth of some bashful guy she met. Another of her "P" extravaganzas was, "I homed in on a pod of puffins perched precariously on a piece of precipitous cliff (don't try saying that with a portion of pelican pie in your mouth)." Hardly a paragraph passes without some alliterative assault--"chirpy children," "lazy loll," fey female form," "past penned offering," "bored blokes," dithering dilemma"...

It could be overwhelming at times. Such writing is best taken in small doses. Unlike some travel writers who have me eager for the next episode, hers were so repetitive, I needed to periodically put the book down for a breather. She was not so concerned with searching out interesting historical or sociological anecdotes or insights into the people she's amongst, but interesting word combinations. She regularly quoted clever or odd signs and t-shirts and post cards and graffiti and newspaper headlines that give her a chuckle, such as the sign at a campground that read, "Unattended children will be sold as slaves." She's a travel writer who wishes to amuse rather than to inform.

Still, she is a legitimate touring cyclist and fully understands and captures the experience. She's not another of those many one-timers writing about a trip in response to all those she met along the way who said, "You ought to write a book." She gives a distinctly woman's perspective from sexist comments to menstrual moments and finding places to pee. Voiding bodily wastes is rarely mentioned in books written by men. It was one of the themes of Dew's book, much much more than finding a place to bathe, as she regularly stays in camp grounds and bed and breakfasts, so neer seems despeate for a shower. For others that is often such a momentous even that they mention whenever they have one.

She does wild camp. On one occasion when she pitched her tent in not the best of spots between a busy commuter train line and a roadway, she had no place to sequester herself for bathroom duties. For the first time ever she had to do a number two in her tent. She proudly said, "If our boys in the Special Air Service could crap into a plastic bag, then so could I."

Her can-do spirit happily prevails at all times, though she doesn't make a theme of the hardships or make them more than they are as some writers are prone to do. She knows they are part of the experience and fully accepts them. Never does she make a condition seem so unwelcome as to make one wonder why one would want to be doing such a thing. She's constantly inflicted with rain in these travels, mentioning the wet on at least 125 pages, yet never lets it get to her.

She does acknowledge at one point, "I'm soaked, I'm freezing, I'm filthy and I'm wondering why I just don't jack it all in and go and buy a nice, big, warm and safe four-wheel drive and give birth to 2.4 children and live crappily ever after. Because...because...because...this is my life--flailing around in the grime of the roadside...loving moments...hating moments. Pain. Anxiety. Exhaustion. Elation. Delight and despair. It's all fun in the long run."

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