The Motorcycle Diaries – Che Guevara

The book tells the story of a journey made almost on a whim by Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado almost the full length of South America initially using Guevara’s 500cc Norton motorcycle which is what gives the book its title. However from when they leave Buenos Aires on 4th January 1952 to arriving in Caracas on 17th July almost all the trip is done via hitch-hiking on lorries as the bike broke completely between Lautaro and Los Angeles in southern Chile on the 21st February. At the time Guevara was a student doctor and Granado was a qualified biochemist and taking what was intended to be a year long break to explore South America was seen as madness but neither man could be persuaded to delay the trip. Ernesto would return to medical school and qualify as a doctor before becoming known the world over as Che Guevara the revolutionary who helped Fidel Castro overthrow Fulgencio Batista the then dictator in Cuba before going on to assist in various revolutionary movements across South America and even in Africa. Che simply means pal or mate in Argentinian Spanish but it was the name he would have as his own for most of his adult life and is still how he is best known today.

But this book precedes his fame, he was only 23 when they set out, Granado was 29, and this review is published on my blog on what would have been Ernesto Guevara’s 94th birthday (14th June) if he hadn’t been executed by Bolivian forces on the 9th October 1967 when he was just 39. It wasn’t Guevara’s first journey by motorbike, he had already done at least one very long trip but that was by himself, taking Granado as well just on the one bike was somewhat overloading its capacity and it really didn’t take long for the poor roads and the extra weight to take its toll. At first they just used wire to hold the bike together but then they started to get repeated punctures which proved tricky to fix especially when splits started happening due to multiple holes near one another and the bike finally broke its steering column which consigned it to the scrap heap. This was not a luxury trip, they were largely impoverished on the journey living from hand to mouth, cadging beds and food as well as they could and using a largely fake fame as famous Argentinian leprosy specialists to ingratiate themselves with anyone they could. To be fair Granado did know a lot about leprosy and Guevara was considering making it his speciality when he graduated and they did visit several leper colonies on the trip so they probably knew more than anyone else apart from the specialist doctors at the colonies. But even this appeal to peoples charity didn’t work very well so they were often cold and hungry.

Amongst other ‘cons’ they used to get looked after was to stare dreamily into space after asking what the date was and saying ‘Oh we have been on the road for a year as of today’ and people would help them celebrate by buying food and drink. Guevara was particularly good at when being offered a drink he would just sip at it and when asked why he would explain that Argentinians don’t just drink they would always have food with alcohol and it felt strange to just have a drink. This would invariably get some food on the table for them. The full journey was to head south from Buenos Aires into Chile, go north through that country and then onto Peru, where they visited Lake Titicaca and the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. They continued from Peru into Colombia and Venezuela where Guevara and Granado split up so that Guevera could get back to university by plane. This final stage however didn’t go to plan, as so much of the entire journey hadn’t, as to get a cheap flight he agreed to help ship racehorses to Miami with the plane due to fly back to Caracas and then onto Buenos Aires the next day. Instead the plane broke down in Miami and he was stuck there for a month waiting for it to be fixed.

The book was first published in 1993, with the translation into English by Ann Wright published in 1995 by Verso, so well after Guevara’s death, and was put together from his manuscript notes written during the journey. There is also a preface and an epilogue, both written by Guevara’s father, the epilogue details the fraught long unwanted stay in America. I have to say that this particular copy of the book, the thirteenth impression by Fourth Estate, is very badly printed with considerable over inking on random pages making it quite difficult to read in places but it was well worth the effort to get a glimpse into the development of a future revolutionary. You can see in his writing a change as he glimpses the extreme poverty that a lot of the continent is stuck in and the largely despotic rulers that control the lives of the population. Definitely a recommended read.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Master story teller of dark tales Neil Gaiman produced another brilliant book for young adults back in 2008 and my Bloomsbury edition is beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell. Gaiman is probably best known for his books Coraline and Stardust both of which were turned into wonderfully strange films, along with the comic novel masterpiece that is Sandman and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett in writing Good Omens. The American edition, also released in 2008 was illustrated by Dave McKean who also did all the covers for the Sandman graphic novels and this version contains far more illustrations than the UK edition but I really like the sparseness of the Riddell pictures, see the two examples below. The darkness of the novel starts right from page one where before we get to the bottom of the page our hero’s entire family, mother, father and elder sister have been murdered by the man Jack and he is going up the stairs to kill him who is just eighteen months old. First is the picture by Chris Riddell and then comes part of the image of the same scene by Dave McKean.

Fortunately for the, as yet unnamed, toddler he had heard something and climbed out of his cot using his teddy bear as a stepladder and had worked his way down the stairs whilst the man Jack had been killing his family. Finding the front door open he had gone outside as stairs going up were far more difficult than bouncing down on your bottom so the choices were limited and tottered up the road outside until he reached what looked like a park. The man Jack followed him by scent, for there is a lot more to the man Jack than just a common assassin as we will find out as the book progresses, but as for the toddler he is now at an old graveyard, one that is no longer used for burials and is now, at least during the daytime, a nature park, but it is currently nighttime and the gates are locked but the child could squeeze through the railings. Eventually the man Jack tracks down the child and gets into the graveyard only to be confronted with the ghosts who ‘live’ there along with Silas (more of him later) and after a brief appearance of the ghosts of his family the inhabitants of the graveyard decide to look after the child as best they can.

Silas convinces the man Jack to leave using one of his powers which is to be extremely convincing even to such as Jack and is appointed the child’s guardian by the rest of the ghosts because Silas can leave the graveyard and exist in the world of the living as he is neither dead nor alive. It is never made clear in the book who, or indeed what, Silas is but he is clearly from the realm of the undead. All of this takes place in the first five pages of what is a 289 page book so as you can see Gaiman packs a lot of story into this work which was written piecemeal as he came up with ideas.

My son Michael inspired this book. He was only two years old, riding his little tricycle between gravestones in the summer, and I had a book in my head. Then it just took me twenty-something years to write it.

When I started writing the book (I started with Chapter Four) only my daughter Maddy’s request to know what happened next kept me writing beyond the first couple of pages

From the Acknowledgements at the rear of the book

Chapter four was originally published as a short story entitled ‘The Witch’s Headstone’ in a couple of anthologies and each of the chapters from two to seven make up complete short stories set a couple of years apart as Bod, as he becomes known, grows up in the graveyard with Silas able to bring food and clothes from the town of the living to keep him alive and the ghosts teaching him what they can. Bod, short for Nobody, makes a friend for a short while and Scarlett features in a couple of the chapters, Bod even manages to go to school for a while but that doesn’t end well and the man Jack reappears to try to finish what he started all those years ago but this time Bod is a teenager and on his own territory and knows just how to deal with the man Jack and his four accomplices. The book has funny parts as well as sections of considerable menace and appeals to adults both young and old. I loved it. There was even talk of making a film but despite a few abortive attempts nothing has yet come of that. But for me the most fun way to enjoy the book is with Neil Gaiman himself reading it which can be found here. This is the American edition so some of the words have been changed, a nappy becomes a diaper for example but even so enjoy…

Good Morning Nantwich – Phill Jupitus

OK, I picked this book up because it had Nantwich in the title and that is the town in Cheshire that I was born in. I was also intrigued by a book by Phill Jupitus whom I was familiar with from the TV shows ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’, where he was a team captain for pretty well every show, and his occasional appearances on ‘QI’ and ‘Have I Got News For You’ along with the BBC Radio 4 stalwarts ‘The News Quiz’ and ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ but I had no idea he had even done any radio presenting never mind being a breakfast show DJ for five years. On the first point of attraction Nantwich is never mentioned by Phill in the entire book and its sole appearance is the last line of the foreword by fellow DJ Lauren Laverne.

I also hope that this book gives you an insight into the man behind the mic, some tales that make you laugh and an insight into the way a man’s love of broadcasting might drive him to madness and beyond. Possibly to Nantwich.

My lack of knowledge of his radio broadcasting career is explained by the fact that in the 1990’s, when he started as an occasional broadcaster it was for a London based station that I couldn’t pick up and by the time that he appeared on national radio in 2002 it was for a newly launched digital only station ‘6 Music’ and at the time like almost everybody else in the country I didn’t own a digital radio as they were almost impossible to source. This partly explains the dire listening figures for his show but as Phill admits the style of the show probably put off quite a few potential listeners as it was very much a take it or leave it approach to what listeners could expect and if you didn’t like it well you could go elsewhere, he was doing it his way or not at all.

The book is actually fascinating as he not only covers his career on radio and especially his time on ‘6 Music’ but also looks at the history of breakfast shows, and compares the various styles that have been employed over the years including one very funny chapter where he makes himself to listen to a four hour show on an unnamed channel and truly hates the entire experience as it was so forced and formulaic. The humour is all the greater as I found myself hearing him reading the chapter in my mind and just getting more and more irate as he documents the show, down to the adverts and each record played along with the inane and several times genuinely offensive banter between the two presenters. Compare and contrast with the gentle style of that master of breakfast radio Terry Wogan who for twenty seven years held together a dedicated group of listeners in their millions and somebody that Jupitus genuinely admired although he had no intention of remotely copying on his own show, he was looking for something more like the shows done by the great late night broadcaster John Peel although not quite as eclectic in musical choice as he simply wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with it.

The more Jupitus mentions his musical and broadcasting heroes the more he and I agreed and we certainly had the similar exposure to music growing up as I am just fourteen days older than him and whilst he had far more opportunity to hear new things as he grew up in Greater London, a shared addiction to John Peel’s show meant that we certainly heard a lot of the weird and wonderful at the same time. Each chapter of the book concludes with a list of ten songs that has a sort of link to the chapter although at times this could be a little tenuous but it does give an idea as to the wide spread of his musical tastes. His final breakfast show broadcast was done from his own home which had the advantage that he could sleep in for an extra hour and three quarters and was also a nod to John Peel who had broadcast regularly from home where he had access to one of the largest private record collections in the world. Whilst Jupitus’s collection wasn’t in the same league he also played a lot of his own records in his final three hours as a breakfast DJ.

It’s a good book and a lot more interesting than I expected, after all reading about a radio career that you didn’t even know existed for 296 pages is a bit of a stretch, but in fact the book flew by and it just took two days to read and another one to write up. All in all I forgive the author for the Nantwich tag without which I would probably never have picked the book up. As for Jupitus in the ten years since he wrote this book he has never done a regular radio show and has no plans to do so.