Book Review: Quondam: Travels in a Once World

“This one goes out to the one I love

This one goes out to the one I left behind

A simple prop to occupy my time

This one goes out to the one I love”

REM, The One I love.

Some time. Some time when.  Some time, when….

…REM were on the verge of international success

…Reagan was on the cusp of the Contra rebels scandal

…Microsoft became a publicly listed company

…a man pulled at a stuck window in Cairo until the air rushed in.  His journey had begun.  So begins Quondam, travels in a once world, John Devoy’s account of 5 months’ huffing and puffing, pedalling and piddling, sweltering and sweating in Egypt, Sudan, Zaire (of then), Uganda and Kenya.  It’s 1986.

Cycling enthusiasts will have read John’s homage on about the importance of his Mercian to the success of his trip.  Cyclists will well imagine his horror at seeing his bike mangled underneath metal sheeting and a tonne of whatnot train cargo.  “The ‘machine’ was there for sure, but barely recognisable…  Only a cyclist would understand.”  Thankfully it survived.

A simple prop to occupy my time

The Mercian was much more than a simple prop, but the beauty of this book is the journey John took, sometimes by map, more often by the stars.  “This” he tells himself, “’is what a cycling adventure is all about’ but it’s not really about cycling at all, but about riding far enough to get stuck into such hard-to-forget situations”.  

You don’t need to be a cyclist to enjoy this book, in fact mile-eating speed merchants might not get it all, but adventurers will.  Like Tom.  Tom is young, maybe too young to contemplate, leave alone undertake, a trip like an African crossing.  His mind knows it too and so he attaches himself to John.  John is not on a trip though, he’s on a journey.  John’s journey doesn’t need a Tom, and so we read how John sets him free.

Tom’s unwritten story is a parallel journey and as I read this book I kept wondering about Tom and put myself in his shoes.  How he might come to a crossroads that demand a decision,  the sights he could not unsee, his increasing heartbeats as he knew he was heading for the unknown.  As I thought of Tom, I realised Quondam was bringing me on a further journey, my own.  I was reading John’s journeys, thinking of Tom’s and reliving my own.  Not bad for the price of just one book.

John met many people on his journey, their lives simple and complex at the same time.  In Egypt and North Sudan they were generous to a fault, Muslim to the core.  John walked up to them knowing he would get a place to sleep for the night, and in this he woke something in me too.  How the traveller becomes emboldened and resigned to hospitality in equal measure.  How there’s nothing you want more on a journey than a friendly door and then the next day there’s nothing more urgent than closing it behind you.

Oh the road!  Or in John’s case the sand.  Dragging his bike through the soft Sudanese sand, from outpost to outpost, the way marked by tyre tracks in the sand.  John is not parched, though sweat soaks his filthy t-shirts and headband, but his fingers are inflamed from pulling and dragging his steed with its panniers, water, stove, tent and money stuffed down the seat-tube.  It’s at times like this John doubt’s his journey and his sanity.  And I wonder where’s Tom?

This one goes out to the one I left behind.

Tom is not the one John left behind.  John’s voyage is made real by those he left at home in Cork, Ireland.  A girlfriend recalled by just the first letter of her first name, a father whose past makes sense of John’s 1986 present, brothers whose existence juxtapose the journey.  ‘What would they be doing now’; ‘if they could see me now’; ‘they’d get a laugh out of this’.  Friends too, who understand the single-mindedness of the traveller who needs to travel.

Quondam doesn’t stop in Sudan and I didn’t wish it to.  I wanted more.  More retelling of tales, reliving of experiences.  More wondering if Tom had been here before or was following on. More imaginings of me knocking on a stranger’s door.     As I sank back into my highbacked chair I was looking forward to the gentle reverie that make me think I could do this too.  I read on, but no longer of the homeliness of sandy North Sudan, but the reality of South Sudan, Civil War, bartered and battered lives.  The generosity of religion supplanted with the needs of war.  As much as Egypt and Sudan demanded reflection, Zaire and Uganda demanded attention.

Despite the borders being fluid John’s late night trips in trucks and jeeps, past checkpoints, some legal some informal, marked a change in scene from serenity and reflection to immediacy and interaction.  There’s a whiff of sulphur in the pages as the journey passes through the threat of mines and the knowledge now that some of the villages he passes through will be no more.  The meetings with strangers become more transactional, requiring Job like patience when urgency meets ambivalence.  John is not harsh on anyone, but the descriptions and experiences are unforgiving, and the descriptions and experiences are unforgettable.   

The present tense John speaks though the book too.  He reflects on the good luck of travelling before the internet chewed up isolation.  It wasn’t always to his advantage, but with it he would not have had some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences he sympathetically records.  Since publishing Quondam, travels in a once world I had the chance to ask John who this book is for.  He spoke of his young self, his memory, his wife, his children, his brothers, his dear friends, his father.

This one goes out to the one I love.

The good news for us readers there are two more instalments to come. Before those, however, buy this one.

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