Wednesday, September 21, 2011

David Byrne - The Bicycle Diaries

The Bicycle Diaries is the story of David Byrne's bicycling adventures around various world cities over the last two decades. Byrne has an economical, unfussy prose style and he's is a good observer which is an important thing in a travel writer. He's also pretty acute at describing what he sees, be it an urban wasteland in Detroit, a cemetery in Sydney or new developments in Berlin or Buenos Aires. Byrne is empathetic and non judgemental about what he's cycling past and this can be a bit boring after a while (the truly great travel writers like Paul Theroux and Mark Twain openly wear their prejudices on their sleeves) but it's not fatal. The bicycle was a good idea because it allows Byrne to get off the beaten tarmac and to see bits of cities that other people do not, this is especially important because Byrne is a celebrity and celebrities experience the world differently than you or me. Celebrities get their asses kissed and tend to see new places through the prism of agents, publicity people and the like, which unfortunately is what happens to Byrne in a few cities that he gets (London and Melbourne for example) completely wrong. 
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I have come to realise that TV travel programmes are utterly bogus and a complete waste of time. Michael Palin, Anthony Bourdain etc. travel from fake location to fake location with a crew of eight or nine people and their trite, uniformed observations are a mockery of genuine travel writing. Byrne by travelling alone, on a bike, without a camera crew, at his own pace, at least avoids these disasters. His charm rubbed off on me and as time wore on I forgave him his naivete, political correctness and need to tell us the bleedin obvious. David Byrne is not a wanker, in fact he seems like a cool guy (he's David Byrne after all!) but that doesn't mean he can't be a bit wanky from time to time especially when he's hanging out with cool cats at private clubs, galleries and fancy restaurants. When he keeps this material in the slow lane The Bicycle Diaries is an enjoyable book but it goes over the white lines into the kill zone when he's at yet another art expo or experimental theatre show or when he says stuff like this: "you know what's more boring than watching a cricket match? listening to a cricket match on the radio."
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(Dear oh dear, the poor deprived man has clearly never spent a lazy August afternoon drinking frozen margaritas, listening to the BBC's Test Match Special as the shadows lengthen and the commentators soft conversation becomes a bridge between an unbroken past and a nostalgic present and we hear old stories and forgotten names and ancient wisdom and see that we are participating in a venerable tradition - what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott calls a living argument - the Great Conversation Of Mankind in all its quirkiness, its richness and diversity and which is surely one of the few unspoiled joys left in this vale of tears.) 
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But that's an aside. On the whole I liked Bicycle Diaries, was not offended by Byrne's hipsterism and thought his advice on helmets, safety and riding in such diverse places as Bogota, Detroit and New York was invaluable.