Monday, July 8, 2013

On Wheels, with George Bernard Shaw and friends

"On Wheels" takes reckless
driving to new literary heights.
Automobiles (and motorcycles) have their idiosyncrasies — the powerful roar of the Brough Superior motorcycle; the continuously variable transmission of the lowly DAF car. These make them either alluring or just plain interesting.

These are mentioned, but it's really the idiosyncrasies of motorists and motorcyclists that interest and amuse Michael Holroyd, author of a new little book entitled "On Wheels."

Holroyd is an acclaimed biographer, most particularly of George Bernard Shaw (in four volumes, a Shaw companion and a one-volume life). He is also the author of several biographies that are near novels, referred to by The New York Times as "a blend of biography and autobiography."

Basically, you get the lives of literary figures as told over beers by a particularly witty companion.

In "On Wheels" he shares delightful descriptions of his own struggles to master use of a clutch with tales of Shaw's (and others) many crashes.

An example:

"During the war, Shaw became a fiery motorcyclist, gingering up his two-stroke machine that would hurtle away, bucking him off sometimes and landing on top of him. He took hypothetical instruction from the village chemist at Ayot St. Lawrence on how to steer around corners, but could not bring himself to accept the theory that it was necessary to lean over at an angle while doing this."

Another motorcyclist and literary figure, T.E. Lawrence, appears here too, as a friend of Shaw's. Holroyd notes that "Bonerges," Lawrence's name for the most famous of his motorcycles, is the name of a loudmouthed character in a 1928 play by Shaw.

The connection between Lawrence of Arabia and Shaw is strengthened if Holroyd has it right that Shaw gave Lawrence the motorcycle Bonerges as a gift. On his blog The Vintagent, Paul d'Orleans writes that George Brough, builder of Brough Superiors, said Lawrence paid for his own motorcycles.

Maybe documentation for the gift is provided in a footnote in one of Holroyd's volumes on Shaw. The 104 pages of "On Wheels" don't allow room for attribution, and none is really required. We are really just along for the ride.

It's an enjoyable one.


  1. If you like Michael Holroyd's book you will thoroughly enjoy Neil Bradford's "Sons of Thunder" a motorcycling anthology, including Lawrence's famous "The Road". He named his Brough's "Boanerges" after Christ's biblical reference - apt, considering those magnificent V twin cylinders! See details at:

    1. Thank you for the recommendation. Here is a shorter link to Sons of Thunder on Amazon.


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