Born to Ride

Well, almost… I was five when I first felt the magic. It was a lazy summer Sunday and my parents and me were driving home from the seaside along the old Acle Straight in Dad’s twitchy Singer Vogue. I don’t remember the day, other than it was warm and sunny, but Dad was wound up. He was always wound up. He worked hard during the week – he was a brickie – and generally resented spending his precious free time with us at the weekend. Worse, we’d been to the Vegas of the East, Great Yarmouth, a place, said my father, where ‘A fool and his money are easily parted.’ He hated spending cash on chips and ice creams and amusements and all the stuff you go to the beach for. My mother, on the other hand, loved all this and so did I. (She worked too, in the sweet factory, so it’d’ve been her money going on treats anyway.) A day at the beach for my father meant an absurdly long swim or a brisk walk along a wild coastline, preferably devoid of human beings, including me and my mum. (Refreshments, he felt, should be brought from home.) We, on the other hand, liked the pitch ’n’ putt, the Golden Mile, the junk food and the crappy souvenirs. Usually on days out, with one or two notable exceptions that I do remember because they were so unusual – like the time he took me to meet Dr Who – Dad would be moody and distant, his resentment simmering just below the surface until something random triggered him and he went off like Captain Hurricane. And he gotten worse since he’d given up smoking. I was in the back seat, keeping quiet but watching the world go by, while keeping half an eye on my dad. Mum was burbling away, trying to be cheery, and then the universe pulled the trigger.

I heard the bikes before I saw them, a great wall of noise, like a squadron of low-flying Spitfires, coming up behind us fast. It was a big run, the kind English summer days are made for, when our bleak and rain-soaked roads briefly become the Pacific Highway. Suddenly our little car was surrounded by Vikings on big British bikes, like the one Glyn who lived over the road from us had. They were mostly Norton, Triumph and BSA twins, black, green, red, with the odd chrome tank. Some were even chopped, a couple had big wooden crates on the sides. Of course, I didn’t know anything about brands back then. They were just a great, noisy colourful mass of leather-armoured knights on iron horses, space cowboys ripping through the air, girls in tight jeans jammed up against their men. This was before the helmet laws, so there was long hair flying everywhere, framing insect-black shades, beards, bare arms, prison tats and colours. The snake seemed to go on forever but there were probably under twenty riders, all shooting past my father, overtaking, undertaking and whooping with the sheer joy of being alive. No one gave us a hard time, and they were soon on their way, accelerating away in a long line ahead of us, whipping in and out of traffic and quickly gone in a final blast of sound, class and colour.

My dad was livid. He went off, screaming about ‘Bloody layabouts, hooligans… think they own the bloody roads, the cheeky little bastards…’ He was beside himself, while my mum tried to calm him down and he barked at her. I kept me head down. I didn’t really know why this impressive bunch of humanity was so terrible, though I was deeply into Dick Turpin back then and I was getting a bit of a vibe… My father, it seemed, was offended by the very existence of these people, pre-programmed to hate them, I later twigged, by the then current tabloid moral panic about Hell’s Angels, which was only two or three years on from the moral outrage directed at a handful of mods and rockers, blown out of all proportion by politicians and the press. Like the hippies on the telly, these people were just wrong: rebellious, seditious, ‘not what we fought the bloody war for…’ But beyond all that impotent rage, the envy of youth and freedom perhaps, or just a tribal hatred of the Other – or my dad’s basic misanthropy – there was something else in his eyes I’d never seen before. Fear. Like they were the Indians, and we were the pioneers in the covered wagon. What I took from that drive was the new understanding that my overbearing, frequently violent father was afraid of something, that he wasn’t all powerful.

I didn’t know quite what or who I’d just seen, but I knew when I grew up, I wanted to be just like them.

Me and my Mum, Irene, in Great Yarmouth c. 1969.

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