These Are The Days Which Must Happen To You.

“Must read” is an over-blown phrase, but not where Dan Walsh’s classic of modern travel writing is concerned, says Jim-Bob.

Part of the ethos of this website is to create a space which brings together the kind of bike-related things you won’t always find in the mainstream mags and websites. It may be news from smaller bike scenes, it may be gear reviews of bespoke kit you won’t find in your local bike superstore and it may be views and writing which sit outside the motorcycling middle lane.

Which is a long-winded way of explaining why we are reviewing a book which first came out in 2009; Dan Walsh’s “These Are The Days Which Must Happen To You.”

Just as an Auto Fabrica custom, a beaten-up Africa Twin or a Ducati Tricolore are special in our world, so is this book.

On paper it shouldn’t be. Walsh, a young journalist at Bike Magazine, set off on a number of trips to foreign climes a decade ago on the basis of writing a monthly column for the mag which would help fund the trip(s). So far so normal.

The reason why the book which eventually emerged is so special needs to be considered alongside the fact that so much else in the world of travel writing no longer is.

The travelogue is a genre which sells, and has thus been thrashed to within an inch of its literary life in recent years. The shelves of the book shop seem rammed with formulaic travel writing by numbers.

There’s the book based on a zany idea – seeking the perfect snowfall, visiting countries with a certain amount of letters in their name; anything for a clever dust jacket write-up. Then there’s the cringing journeys of self-discovery and “personal growth”. The journeys which are so full of self-analysis as to sum up all 600 pages with the word “me”.

Finally there’s the cynically manufactured big name travel book. Take talented, big-name writer; pay for him or her to visit X location(s), remove said costs from eventual book advance and await best-seller.

The greatest travel writing is not great because of the travelling, but the writing: Steinbeck, Thesiger, Oliver. The ability to take the sights, sounds, smells, vibe, and essence of far away places and put the reader right there, combined with the genius of an eye for detail – the smallest gestures, views and events beautifully reported and leaving the reader to use their own intelligence to understand the greater significance that can be found in them. The best such books have a brutal honesty too – the writer whose emotions are raw on the page helps the reader wonder how they would cope if they were there.

Which is what Walsh ended up, accidentally, doing; and why this review is here.

The Dan Walsh who initially set off through rainy London had a raw, disordered talent for writing, no idea whatsoever about what lay ahead and, as it later transpired, no motorcycle licence.

In the months and years afterwards all that changed. A jorney of sex, booze, drugs, wheelies, crashes, passions, politics, loneliness, despair and unbridled joy forged a different man, and a writer of immense skill. Never written with an eye on legacy, Walsh is seeringly honest, not least about his own shortcomings. A chaotic but intelligent individual released on an unsuspecting world, or possibly it was the other way around.

In the introduction to the book, which is formed of the collected columns from Bike, Walsh is the first to admit his early writing was hit and miss. He says he got better, but that’s an understatement. For example:

“For me, Chile will always be South America’s supermodel sister – very beautiful but too long, too skinny, and too expensive to ride, and despite the groovy exterior, unpleasantly right-wing underneath.”

He writes just as beautifully about a nervous breakdown, about thinking he was dead, about ill-advised sex with a gangster’s moll, about being kidnapped and about the tapestry of pimps, soldiers, hookers, adventurers, dealers in anything and everything and corrupt officials he seems to attract likes moths to a light.

Part of the book’s power is that because the chapters are actually columns which he had to file to his employer to survive financially, they are written contemporaneously with the story. There’s no post-trip revisionism here, carefully constructed at some writers’ retreat months after the event. If the author was miserable and scared and drunk when he needed to file, that’s how he filed (or, sometimes, didn’t file at all); same goes for when he was shacked up with some girl on a beach having the time of his life. Consequently the moods swing and place you on the journey with him.

It works, although it is consequently something of an emotional roller-coaster and thus ocassionally you find you need to put it down for a bit and take a break, just to get your breath back.

I have bought copies of it for non-biking friends who were about to go travelling – some of them as far removed from a hard-drinking, slightly punchy, narcotic, politicised, Mancunian hedonist on a motorcycle as you could get. All of them have loved it, and been moved by it.

The first big journey is through Africa aboard an XT600. Walsh’s trip just about pre-dated the GS Adventure fuelled fashion for such things. He didn’t have £5,000-worth of Touratech hardware, but he did have an almost childlike enthusiasm to just get it done, and enjoy it along the way. That often led to periods of fear, despair and danger, but it also gave him what I think makes these tales so wonderful to read – a determination to experience the people as much as the places and the riding. Walsh travels like a blank page, willing the world to write in it.

In what amounts to the second half of the book, a trip across the Americas on an anything-but-macho 650 Dakar, Walsh has grown immesurably as a writer, but he hasn’t grown markedly different to the charming shambles of a man he seems to think he could leave behind in England by undertaking these adventures in the first place.

And there’s the rub – when you take a young man whose approach to the world has thus far been to try to out-drink it, out-run it, fuck it, snort it or fight it, and place him off the beaten track in central and south America, you get fireworks and joy, tears and misery, fear and broken bones.

It is toward the end of the trip when Walsh is juggling emotional and physical burn-out with the impending return of real life, and also trying to manage a growing self-loathing driven by an admission that even endless adventures seem to have become mundane, that one of the darkest elements of the book arrives. Locked in this spiral he finds kindred souls and slides towards depression and destruction.

“So we create a nocturnal hobo jungle of casual criminality, loveless violence and petty sex. Even nihilists need a schedule, and ours seldom changes… Dignified waiters in bleached aprons serve coffee and croissants to the respectable ready-for-workers, and frosty beers and colder smiles to our crew of growling idiots crouched in the corner round a table full of empties, listening through our arseholes, scratching at our eyeballs and chewing off our bleeding lips… ‘Ay, los esqualidos.’ The squalid ones. The door swings shut and I piss away the last drops of my soul.”

Enough time has passed that many will not have read Dan’s adventures as they unfolded monthly in the pages of Bike. You don’t see “The Dan Walsh Appreciation Society” stickers on the side panels of courier bikes any more. But the book’s still there, and it’s still unsurpassed; not as a piece of motorcycle writing, but as a piece of modern travel writing.

It’s in your local Waterstones, or on the nasty website that pays no tax. It’s also available from your local independent bookshop, if such things matter to you.

It’s a wonderful read and a favourite amongst us here at MotoDLX and we think you’ll love it too.

 

“These Are The Days Which Must Happen To You” by Dan Walsh.

Publisher: Century/Random House

ISBN-10: 1846053110

ISBN-13: 978-1846053115

Price: Around £12.99 in paperback

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One comment

  • One of my favourite books, ever. Inspirational to read. Now sits by my bed to be dipped into every now and then. Only wish I rode my bike as often as I read about riding.

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