Most of the posts on this blog are articles previously published in national periodicals. Folks have been asking for these to be collected in one spot...and this is that spot. And, unless otherwise noted, illustrations are by David Gillett as well.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Two Sides of Me - The Jane Austen Motocross Club

The Globe and Mail

Read it online at:

Or read it here:


Full disclosure: the Club is not large.  At this point, it has but one member that I know of.


But since this year is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, now seemed like the time to come out of the Georgian wardrobe, so to speak. Time to ‘fess up.

I made a Faustian deal with the diabolical powers of Georgian literature and motorcycle racing in my romantic youth: If I’d not deny my affection for Miss Austen’s stories, in return I’d live a long life filled with a lot of good dirt bike riding.

So far I’ve had the long life and the (sometimes painful) good motocross riding, but I’m having a devil of a time dovetailing it with the world of 18th century English romance.

Its as if I’m afflicted with a strange sort of schizophrenia, a double life. I’m all Mr.Darcy one day, planting out roses with my daughter, chuckling at Mr.Collins, watching a re-run of Emma with biscuits and tea.

And then the buttons pop off my silk waistcoat and another me bursts out, a motocross dark side to the genteel side of light-filled parlours and country dancing. Motocross, to the uneducated, has nothing at all to do with Austen’s world of provincial Georgian towns and comedies of manners. Hers is a world of trivial incidents finely written, quiet conversations in libraries, heart-to-hearts in dappled orchards.

The motocross world, in apparent contrast, is a high-revving universe of endurance, fueled by adrenalin, testosterone and speed. Its a sport on the edge of the extreme sports column, peopled largely by males preoccupied with flying higher, farther, and faster  on the knife edge of control, one bad move away from an ambulance trip.

Inside my steaming helmet, there is no internal dialogue on gooseberries, local vicars or matters of the heart. On the racetrack, things tend to be dog-eat-dog, and as I gain on a Yamaha rider heading for that double-jump, I find myself paraphrasing Jane as I reel in my opponent: “In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I want to pass you in a hail of rocks and mud.”

Jane’s world is a gentle one of polite ladies and rich young suitors. But its also a study in sexual politics, class and the human heart. Not unlike motocross. (Okay, maybe not the sexual politics part.) Riding torturous terrain in an adrenalin-fueled rush is to look into your soul and ask: “What on earth am I doing, at my age, with a family to support?”

Motocross can hurt. It can lead to intimate acquaintance with unsympathetic chiropractors. It can place one in a social category far-removed from the finer class of vicars and local gentry-folk. Emma Woodhouse’s anxious father would never have approved. And yet, after a good day of near misses, long jumps and bruising laps, I again hear an echo of Pride and Prejudice as I stand back and admire my mud-caked Honda 450. “You have bewitched me, body and soul and I love you. And wish from this day forth never to be parted from you or ever play golf again.”

My wife rolls her eyes at this sort of thing. But she understands. She has come to realize that it should be a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a Honda CRF450 must be in want of a good BBC period drama.

Bruce Fierstein’s 1982 book “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche” was published to great acclaim, selling over 1.6 million copies. It poked fun at the sensitive new-age man, living an insipid life marked by an interest in things perceived to be anti-masculine. But Fierstein missed the mark. Real men eat anything they want (quiche included.) They also read what they want: books about motocross racing, books about Elizabeth Bennett’s love life.

I’m sure there are other men out there, settling down to a night of Sense and Sensibility and eating quiche while they Instagram photos of the muddy crash they had last Saturday. Masculine and feminine  don’t have to be slotted so quickly into time worn pigeon-holes. At the local track last week, a young woman laid waste to the field of wannabe male racers who could only admire her skill and speed. She crushed it. I only hope that she pulled off the track and picked up her copy of Northanger Abbey between motos.

Such men and women can send in their applications for club membership. The world needs more extreme sports types who wear waistcoats (or petticoats) and read gentle books about sensitive people. The broader implications are heartening indeed, especially in this world where bluster and conflict runs rampant. Imagine a world, for a moment, where riot police contemplate Fordyce’s sermons on their breaks, where rodeo riders take harpsichord lessons, where jet fighter pilots practice needlepoint between sorties. Where’s the downside, dear reader?

As Jane herself once said (and I paraphrase): “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good lap on the motocross track, or a good Jane Austen novel, must be intolerably stupid.”


David Gillett

September 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ireland’s remote Donegal is the coolest place to visit this summer


Driving the twisting ribbon of asphalt that is Donegal’s section of the Wild Atlantic Way coastal route, we had a “Cool Moment”, the first of many in this coolest corner of the coolest place on earth. The Irish language RTE radio was playing and another heart-stopping vista swung into view before us, all crashing waves, misted sea stacks  and foaming surf.  Amongst the Irish chatter, the phrase “Yodel Funk” popped out and, on cue, a funky Gaelic yodeler, backed by a manic tin whistle, gave us a soundtrack to a day of superlatives.

We were on a father-daughter road trip, starting in Belfast where Molly-Claire was living, looping north along the rugged shore of Northern Ireland and then into the wild west of Donegal, the place that National Geographic Traveller anointed number one on its “Coolest Places to Visit 2017” list.

But even before reaching Donegal, we’d compiled our own list of superlatives.  “Hotel Receptionist of the Year”, “Medium Sized Town of the Year” and the lovely “Loo of the Year” (really?) to name a few.  Before leaving Belfast, we’d taken in Titanic Belfast, voted “World’s Leading Tourist Attraction of the Year”.

Good as it was, you have to wonder: who exactly does this voting anyway? But there was no dispute in our mind about the National Geographic’s choice of Donegal as the coolest of the cool, once we got there.

The sun arrived as we did, glinting off the tempestuous Atlantic which is never far away. The roads narrowed, the traffic dried up and the sheep multiplied. The road signs were in Irish, this being the main Gaeltachct, (Irish speaking area) with almost 25%  of the Irish speakers in the country. A point called the Bloody Foreland or Cnoc Fola (the Hill of Blood) figures prominently on the map. This is country with a past.

Donegal has that faded glory feel to it, and the cottage we rented near Ardara was a good metaphor for the county itself. Abandoned and a near ruin, it was found  by architectural historian Dr.Greg Stevenson’s organization, Under The Thatch, which rescues traditional buildings at risk then rents them out to keep them alive and thriving. In his book “Traditional Cottages of County Donegal”, he cites the alarming fact that in 1950 there were 4000 traditional thatched cottages in Northern Ireland alone, but only 150 in 2005.

This cottage could have suffered a similar fate. But it survived and, thankfully, it was also too remote to be tarted up and ruined by amateur renovators. So when it was discovered by Greg, it was the real deal, only in want of a roof, some plumbing , a kitchen and tender loving care. It is minimalist chic in a 17th century sort-of-way, and populated by a careful selection of folk art antiques. Unsurprisingly, it was named “Best Holiday Cottage in Ireland” by the Sunday Times. We were seeing a trend.

Greg had mentioned in his page of directions that it would be rude not to drop by for tea with  neighbour Mary Molloy, the cottage house-keeper. So, as we squeezed past the sheep and made our way to the cottage at the dead end of a road the width of a hiking path, we stopped in.

“ A lovely girl, you are, Molly-Claire!” she gushed, bear-hugging my middle child and  speaking in exclamation marks. “A credit to you, David! Oh what a sweet girl!” Mary and Molly-Claire hit it off like a house on fire, while her husband, the grandly named Columba, sat unmoved at the kitchen table with a wry expression,  unenthused about our intrusion into his world of big skies and lonely winds.

Mary advised us on how to make a turf fire: “Give it air! Give it time! Be patient and it will warm you nicely!”

Thankfully, Molly-Claire didn’t have my Canadian woodsman pride and actually listened to Mary’s advice. Soon, a night of heavy darkness, the smell of turf smoke and the sound of gentle rain lulled us into a deep sleep inside the thick stone walls, our table strewn with maps and books.

The morning took us back down the track, through the majestic Glengesh Pass and into a sea-side world of postcard beauty, the north Atlantic sunlight throwing a golden glow across a landscape little changed for eons.

Maghera beach was our first surprise. Cresting huge dunes of sea-grass, we found ourselves totally alone on a pristine white sand beach that stretched unbroken for a mile along gnarly rock cliffs riddled with caves. “Take care with the tides! Dear me, they can run in so fast! The caves, oh, frightening!”, Mary had warned. With one eye on the advancing surf, we ducked low and explored a deep cave, perhaps the very one that had hidden one hundred of Cromwell’s men many years ago. (They lit a fire and were soon discovered by their pursuers and duly slaughtered, save one who hid in a high crevice.)

Not many miles away as the crow flies, but a good hour as the winding road goes, we pulled into the tiny carpark at Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe. Rising right out of the crashing surf to a height greater than the CN tower, the cliffs with their colouring of amber, red and white deserve all the superlatives that can be hurled at them. The rolling waves arriving from Newfoundland exploded into mist at the bottom and the clifftops were shrouded in clouds, heightening the majestic mystery of the whole thing.

It is said that one-third of all Ireland can be seen from the cliff’s summit on a clear day. It is in those other southerly two-thirds that the biggest tourist contingents congregate, drinking green beer and loading up on shamrock tea towels. County Kerry is more famous and much busier, with conga lines of tour buses in summer. County Clare’s Cliffs of Moher are tiny compared to Slieve League, but much more famous. Dublin, of course,  is the go-to cultural bull’s eye. Even Northern Ireland, with its world-renowned Giant’s Causeway  (and more recently the World’s Best Tourist Attraction, Titanic Belfast), siphons the crowds off before they can reach lonely, remote Donegal.

And therein lies a big part of the county’s charm:  true European wilderness with a feeling of the undiscovered. For now.

A closer look shows that changes are coming to Donegal. Killybegs harbor is the centre of a booming and expanding fishing trade, the Aran sweater factory in Ardara  is gearing up for a record-breaking season, and the tea shops are starting to make excellent flat whites now. Scenes for Star Wars: Episode VIII, were filmed on the Inishowen Pennisula.  Brexit has brought a dark cloud of questions about a possible return to the hassle of border crossings between the Republic and Northern Island. The wider world is inserting itself into this wild paradise.

And yet Mary Molloy isn’t fazed by these changes, they seem a  world away from her pristine valley. My daughter, after surviving a teary Donegal goodbye, observed:  “ Mary  doesn’t realize how cool she really  is.”  Should be named “Coolest Cottage Housekeeper of The Year”?

She has to be. She lives in a tiny cottage in the coolest corner of the coolest place to visit in 2017. She can build a proper turf fire, and she has Yodel Funk on her Irish radio.
- March 2017

Read the original article on the newspaper's website at :