7th October 2012 |
A few years ago a magazine editor asked me where I would take my last ride and I was rather taken aback. I don’t spend much time thinking about the end of things, since age seems to have left me fairly intact so far, but I suppose it was a reasonable request given that I was already well into my seventies.
Of course his request begs the question: How would I know that it was my last? Well, there would be one way of making sure. I could leave a neat pile of personal effects, topped by a helmet, at the edge of a very high cliff? I’ve known at least one person who took that final ride, and I can imagine that as way of preempting a painful end it might be thrilling, but I hope I can think of better ways to hang up my helmet.
So, eschewing suicide, I said I’d plump for nostalgia. Of course there remain many places on earth – China, Japan, Russia, to name a few – where I would still like to ride a bike, but for the ultimate excursion I said I thought I’d circle back to the beginning, and try to recover some of those early experiences in the land where I was raised. And so, having thought of it, it became almost inevitable that I would do it.
Since I moved to France in 1968 I’ve seen rather little of the British Isles, but when I was at school, a few years after the end of the war (do I really have to tell you which one?) I used to hitch-hike all over the place, sometimes alone, sometimes with a school friend or two. It was the only way we could afford to get around.
There was a girl in Glasgow I was smitten with and I used to boast that I could get there from London’s North Circular in 18 hours. In the forties that was pretty good time.
It went like clockwork, and always on lorries, because in those days cars were still a rarity. Towards evening you’d get a bus out along the Finchley road to a junction on the North Circular and catch a lorry on its way north up the A6. The drivers liked the company; it helped them to stay awake, so getting a lift was pretty easy.
Usually they were headed for Liverpool or St Helens – I was never lucky enough to find one going all the way to Scotland – and it meant changing lorries at Warrington.. These were not big lorries by modern standards though they seemed big to me then. Scammell, Dennis, Foden, Bedford, those were some of the names that have since disappeared, but I don’t remember too much about them; I wasn’t as curious as I should have been.
The cabs were primitive, scarcely insulated and usually heated by the engine block that sat between me and the driver, with an old greasy horse blanket thrown across it. They might have carried anything from six to ten tons of cargo, under a canvas cover. Going north I never knew what was in the back, but coming south I can remember the scent of coal and, on one occasion coming down the A1, fish.
The drivers were usually interesting characters, and very different from people I met otherwise. One of them I recall spoke only eight words in as many hours on the road to Glasgow. Putting his hand over the engine he said, “This thing’s as ‘ot as a fuckin’ whorehouse.”
And then, as I thought about it, more and more episodes of my early life came to mind, some hilarious, some sombre. There was that distinctly odd year I spent on a provincial paper, in and around Barrow-in-Furness when I was awaiting Her Majesty’s pleasure, with trips to Blackpool and the Lake District. And there were even stranger occurrences when I was finally recruited to the ranks of the RAF and managed to turn my national service into a working holiday, with the help of stars like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
So if I did eventually arrive at Beachy Head perhaps I’d push my bike over the edge, but I’d walk away . . . and write a book.
Certainly the idea appealed to me. I thought I’d make the trip during the late summer of 2009, when the weather was most likely to be fine, taking my time, and then write the book, nothing too voluminous perhaps, through the winter for my 79th birthday in May of 2010.
So I pointed us north, back on the A37, carefully circling around Yeovil on the way. I still didn’t have a decent strategy for avoiding the busiest roads. At first I’d thought that I should simply ask my TomTom to avoid motorways, until I found that there were countless other roads that used to be ordinary, but which were now really motorways by another name.
Then I thought that if I deliberately rode out into the middle of one of those white areas on the map, full of spidery lanes without numbers, the TomTom would keep me off the big roads. Instead it seemed perversely determined to take me back to the nearest howling thoroughfare. Of course I could have constantly fed new little village destinations into the machine but the mechanics of it were too cumbersome and they defeated me. Nevertheless I got a taste of what it might be like.
I managed to ride through some delightful villages with names that would have looked even more enticing on a menu, like Champflower, Ditcheat, Chesterblade and Binegar. Then I rode way off the map and found myself in Vobster. (Who could resist the temptation to try vobsters with binegar?) I also discovered that in Vobster, you – but not I – can dive in a flooded quarry and inspect sunken limousines and underwater toilet seats. Then I realised that if I was going to get to Bristol at all that day I would have to leave my rural researches for another time.
I learned one thing from this trial run, however. I was completely wrong about the English sense of curiosity. My plan to excite comment and conversation with my strange little machine was a complete failure. Even though I hadn’t yet seen another bike like mine, scarcely anyone even noticed it.
When I stopped at a pub in search of a pork pie, one person did make an off-hand remark, like “Never seen one of them before,” but he certainly didn’t invite confidences and his tone suggested that he’d be quite happy if he never saw one again
There were no pork pies, either. Funnily enough, pork pies seem to have disappeared from British pubs. When I’m in America I never think of them, but here in Britain I become mildly addicted. It seems extraordinary that in a country said to be in the grip of an obesity epidemic I can’t find one of the most pleasant sources of superfluous fat.
How can I explain why this little contraption I am riding seems so perfectly appropriate. It has the innocence of a toy, nothing so purposeful as a motorcycle, let alone a car, yet at the same time it is a definite conveyance, a rolling seat, a vehicle out of a children’s story – you get on it, and off it goes, like an ambulatory armchair.
No gears to think about. All you have to do is steer it. I could be Toad of Toad Hall, or Pooh Bear. I am wearing my elegant light tan leather jacket, my yellow kid gloves and a silk scarf. The only thing wrong with this picture is that I am not wearing my flat hat and goggles.
When I first heard of the MP3 it was believed by some that it could be classified as a tricycle exempt from the helmet law and I was overjoyed. But alas, on examination, the two front wheels appear to be not quite far enough apart. To the relief of those who love me I wear the helmet. It definitely spoils the picture but then, I don’t have to look at it.