Friday, April 4, 2014

The Nine Cycle Touring Books of Bettina Selby

My Telluride bicycle touring friend David, who rode along with me in Turkey three years ago, enjoys travel writing as much as I do.  He lets me know from time to time of a book or author he has recently read that he thinks I would enjoy.

The latest was Bettina Selby, an Englishwoman who wrote nine books about traveling by bicycle in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe from 1984 to 1996 until old age caught up to her.  She didn't begin her traveling life until she was 47, after raising three children and serving as a primary school teacher in London.  Somehow or another neither of us had stumbled upon any of her books or had ever heard of her.  

David discovered her while reading up on the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route across northern Spain that he intended to ride this winter.  She had written a book about bicycling it in 1994, the eighth of her nine touring books.  David was also pleased to report that another of her books that he had gotten his hands on, "Beyond Ararat, A Journey Through Eastern Turkey,"  recounted roads we had ridden and experiences similar to ours being set upon by dogs and stoned by kids and chased by mobs of teens.

Chicago's public library had her book on the Camino.  It had eluded me when I read up on it before riding it in 2008, as it was filed amongst the large type books and not on the shelf with the handful of books on the Camino, including one by Shirley MacLaine.  For her other books I turned to my  Northwestern University librarian friend Elizabeth.  They could all be found at various universities, including Northwestern, as her writing has a sheen of academia to it, with a little more commentary on history and culture than most travel books.  They are still mostly personal recollections of the travel experience, but with a school marmish temperament.  She scolds and reprimands behavior that she deems rude and inappropriate, sometimes getting her in trouble.

In her third book, "Riding the Desert Trail," bicycling from Cairo to Uganda following the Nile River for awhile, she rather harshly asks some partiers at a hotel she is staying at to quiet down.  They are so incensed at her demands they charge up to her room calling out, "Where you white woman?  Come out of there sister, we going to pull you apart."  Luckily they couldn't find her room.

In India on her first trip, a 4,000 mile ride from Karachi, Pakistan to Kathmandu, she is knocked off her bike by a mob of young men.  She was paralyzed by fear, but rose up "so incensed by rage, I could have done murder." She gathers her wits and "icy calm and authoritative, as though I was addressing a class of fractious eight-year olds, said, 'I am going to fetch a policeman.'"  That stilled the mob and she managed to ride on.

Later, on the same trip in Nepal a group of school children enthusiastically greet her chanting, "Hello tourist."  She found that disrespectful and "sternly told them that this was not a suitable form of address for a female visitor of mature years."

She regularly has to fend off unwelcome advances by men, once even chasing after a young man who pinched her bottom as she slowly passed him on a climb in Jordan.  She is sustained by an indomitable spirit and an optimistic nature.  In nearly every one of her books she comments that travelers are optimists at heart.

She likewise makes mention of a "guardian angel" looking after her.  In "Fragile Islands, A Journey Through the Outer Hebrides" she continually battled winds.  One day when a particularly malevolent blast had reduced her to a standstill, a blue van came to her rescue.  She wrote, "I was convinced that it was another instance of the Hand of Providence intervening in an hour of need."

In her final travel book, "Like Water in a Dry Land--A Journey into Modern Israel," Selby returns to one of her favorite cities, Jerusalem, starting in Cyprus and passing through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.  At the outset she assures her readers that she sets off with little worries as, "I have come to believe that I have a guardian angel who looks out for me when danger does threaten."  A while later in thick traffic in Beirut she acknowledges, "My guardian angel had his work cut out."

Another one of her defenses is tears.  She would prefer not to be driven to tears, but there are occasions so dire, she cannot help herself and they wheedle her out of trouble.  She wrote that if she hadn't given in to tears at the Israeli/Jordan border in "Riding to Jerusalem" her second book, after being kept waiting for hours by the Israelis, she didn't think she would ever have been let in.

The shedding of tears were a constant feature of her first trip before she realized she had a guardian angel, one of the few books that she doesn't mention such protection.  Another is "Riding North One Summer," where she rides around England and hardly needs one.  But in Pakistan and India she cried so often it worried her until she met other female travelers who had the same proclivity.  "Tears were almost impossible to avoid," she wrote, "because of life being so difficult and frustrating for women in that male-dominated world."

Most of her books include several pages of photos, but rarely one of her. The photos of her first Africa book were mostly of people. There were no photos of bare-breasted woman, but one of males baring their genitalia.   She reveals little of her personal life.  Her husband and children rarely merit more than a single mention.  In her book on bicycling around England she reveals her husband is involved in the film industry.  She acknowledges she is a grandmother and that her son is an ardent traveler too.  Of her two daughters we know nothing other than one was traveling in South America during her first trip and one, who may have been the same, helped her pick out her wardrobe for that trip.

She comes across as very prim and proper.  The worst part of fixing a flat tire for her is getting her hands dirty.   She turns her nose up at grimy linens.  She likes to finish her day with a good shot of whiskey.  When she lists all her gear she includes whiskey among her luxury items, but then corrects herself, calling it a virtual necessity as "a universal catholicon for all manner of ailments."  She mentions having a drink at the end of a day more often than getting a shower or bath, which is much more frequently referred to in most touring cyclist books.

Though she is easily irritated, there is no denying her toughness and fearlessness and daring spirit.  She even had the audacity to enlist as a bicycle messenger as a fifty-year old before her ride down the Nile to get in shape for the ride.  She loved it, despite never working so hard for so little monetary reward.  She gained the fitness she needed and also enhanced her riding skills.

Before her first trip she sold her car so she could buy a first-rate bike and equipment.  That was the only one of her trips where she didn't have a name for her bike.  As an ardent cyclist she is inclined to disparaging remarks about the automobile, even in her only non-cycling book that she wrote five years after her final touring book.

"Two Cats Walking" is the narrative of two cats who abandon their owners, upset with them for forcing them to move from the home they have become accustomed to.  After being on their own for awhile they begin to miss their owners and set out on an odyssey to return to them.  They always hated being transported by car and escape from their owner's car on the way to their new home in rural Wales.  The cats are perplexed by "this perverse generation of humans who both worship the motor car, but at the same time crave peace and quiet."  They are relieved to be back on foot, "as you don't find that kind of magic on a car journey."

Selby's books have been translated into Dutch, German and Japanese.  Some have been made into documentaries.  Though her writing can be a bit dry and impersonal compared to other travel writing, she captures well the travel experience and fully endorses the bicycle as a means of travel.  She should be better known than she is.  She ranks right up there with the two more prominent and equally prolific women touring cyclist writers from the British Isles--Dervla Murphy and Josie Dew.  Murphy preceded her and no doubt was an inspiration, but curiously not once does she pay her homage.

Riding the Mountains Down     1984
Riding to Jerusalum        1986
Riding the Desert Trail     1988
The Fragile Islands        1989
Riding North One Summer       1990
Frail Dream of Timbuktu       1991
Beyond Ararat         1993
Pilgrim's Road        1994
Like Water in a Dry Land     1996
Two Cats Walking        2001


Peter Selby said...

Hello George.
Just found your review, and I thought you would like to know that Bettina is well, has just celebrated her 80th birthday, and that we are still cycling(with electrical assist)round Shropshire. Bettina's books still seem to sell well and are all available through 'Print on Demand'
Best wishes from us both

Josef Svejk said...

I love Bettina Selby's books and was inspired by them. I was so glad to come across this comment by Peter Selby and to hear that she was still riding. If you come across this comment, Peter, please pass on my thanks to her for all her marvellous books and by best wishes to you both.

Lesley Musa said...

we met Bettina in Sudan and found her to be sanctimonious condescending and not actually cycling, she put travelled down the Nile with her bike on an old steam boat then by train to Khartoum, we only ever saw her pushing her bike!

Phil Fine said...

I'm not crazy about Bettina playing fast and loose with the facts. Here's a copy of a letter I recently whisked off to her publisher, HarperCollins U.K. about her travel book, "Like Water in a Dry Land." I'd be happy if someone could give me Ms. Selby's e-mail so I could send her a copy of my complaint directly.

Ms. Kate Elton
Executive publisher,
Harper Fiction & Non-fiction
HarperCollins Publishers
103 Westerhill Road
Glasgow, Scotland
G64 2QT'

Dear Ms. Elton:

I'v just paged through Bettina Selby's "Like Water in a Dry Land: A Journey into Modern Israel," which HarperCollins published in 1996. And although your company may no longer have the rights to this work, I'd like you to pass on a criticism to Ms. Selby.

On p. 68, she unabashedly blames the flight of tens of thousands of Palestinians during Israel's war of independence on a panic deliberately orchestrated by the Israelis -- a panic, she states, that was helped by "a couple of well-publicized massacres."

But there's just one problem: there was no panic and there was no massacres.

Yes, the Haganah, the Israeli army, did use psychological warfare to encourage Arabs to abandon a few villages, notes Dr. Mitchell Bard, author of "Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict." (Paperback edition, 2004, pp. 128-129).

"But these cases," Dr. Bard continues, "were clearly the exceptions, accounting for only a small fraction of the Palestinian refugees."

Indeed, those reporters who actually covered the conflict apparently saw no evidence that large numbers of Arabs in major battles were forcibly expelled by Israeli soldiers.
"The Arabs," Dr. Bard points out, "are usually described as 'fleeing' or 'evacuating' their homes."

True, the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, did attack the Arab village of Deir Yessin near Jerusalem to help lift the siege of the capital. And, yes, the battle did result in the deaths of more than 200 Arabs.

But the villagers were far from peaceful, with both residents and foreign troops opening fire on the attackers. Moreover, the Jewish Agency, upon learning of the attack, immediately expressed its horror and disgust. It also sent a letter of shock and disapproval to King Abdullah of TransJordan.

Massacres and panics? No, Ms. Selby. There were no massacres. And no panics.

HarperCollins owes it to its readers to correct these errors should it publish any new editions of Ms. Selby's book.

Phil Fine
Jerusalem, Israel

minesaperry said...

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