I can’t remember who went first, but I’m going to guess it was Mick. He was just that touch older than me, though we were in the same year at school (I was born early in the year, Mick late the year before). He started out with a Honda 50, the classic ‘Crunchie’, followed by some little Francis Barnett. At 16, you were restricted to 50ccs. He was getting into a scene with the local teenage rocker and heavy metal crowd who lived down his way, who were starting out on smoky BSA Bantams rather than the ubiquitous FS1-Es that dominated my estate, and I was moving socially between this lot and the sixth form stoners. When he left school to start an engineering apprenticeship, he upgraded to a Triumph Tigercub and never looked back. Even with L-plates this was impressive.
Several of us had started hanging out at the local biker pub, Whites, as well. It was between Bank Plain and Tombland, I forget the name of the street. The main thing was it had space out front to line up the bikes, mostly British, naturally. No one seemed to care about our ages and, besides, it was also a modest music venue. Little grebos like me were tolerated by the bikers, who no doubt saw their youngers selves in us with a shudder, and I’d been encouraged to turn up with a lid by some of RLD’s mates to get a lift to parties at weekends. My parents had given up trying to keep me in at night, and beer and fags could still be had for pocket money prices in those days. I’d mostly stopped going to school.
The first time I went there was to nervously buy some acid. ‘Dark Star’ it was called. Marvellous stuff, but that’s another story. Between gig culture, drug culture and bike culture, I definitely felt part of a scene, and one that was at odds with my enemies from school. Looking back, I kinda wish I’d grown up in the midlands and the north, like my wife, which had a proper rocker culture. As it was, long hairs were in the minority in Norwich, and the mod revival wasn’t helping. This always pissed me off because I loved Quadrophenia, probably knew more about The Who and Ska than most of the scooter boys, many of whom had moved over from the skinhead thing. While walking around my estate was always an adventure, Whites wasn’t just a place of safety, it was a fucking fortress. (It’s a wine bar these days.) And even though there were a lot more mods in Norwich, when the bikers got involved, they usually won. I was in Whites one Saturday afternoon, for example, watching the world go by, when a mod who’d given me a lot of grief in the past walked past the pub, presumably out of idiot bravado, and the entire bar emptied out after him. It felt good to be on the winning side for once.
So, bikes meant a couple of things to me. They got you a foot in the door, at least, with the tribe, and they got you out of trouble. Much safer to ride around the streets than walk or peddle. I’d already been kicked off a bicycle by a gang and beaten up on the way home from a gig. Two held my arms while two others hit me. It felt like being raped.
When Mick had his Crunchie, I took the plunge and on impulse blew my pocket money savings on a dead CB 125. I bought it off a kid a year up from me at school for twenty-five quid. I don’t have any pictures of it, but it was red with a hideous white furry seat cover which soon went, revealing a ripped vinyl seat I repaired with duct tape. I remember the day very well, largely because when I pushed it home, my dad saw me coming up the path from the living room window of our ground floor flat, and promptly ran outside and decked me, exclaiming, ‘I don’t want that excrement in my drive!’ (Seriously. He was a Methodist and didn’t approve of swearing.) Down I went, followed by the bike, which fell on me. Then my mother ran up behind him and hit him on the head with a skillet. I was allowed to keep the bike. Later, I heard him talking to my mother in despair, asking, ‘Am I a monster?’ He knew his temper was out of control, but he never really got a handle on it. A couple of years later, he tried the same shit when I bought my first British bike, only this time I hit him with the padlock chain and left home. Mick’s dad was an engineer. He helped his son get the little Honda going. That’s what I’d do for my kid too, but then I wanted him, and I love him. My dad didn’t feel the same.
I was only fifteen so I couldn’t legally ride the Honda, even if I could get the bastard running. I bought a manual and tinkered. It was sort of like having a really big Meccano set. Eventually I installed a cheap replacement battery and she begrudgingly fired up, though I never got the ignition timing right. My father glared at me, but he left me alone. My mother had drawn her line in the sand when she’d belted him, though she never left him. When I had the place to myself, I would ride slowly around the back garden, sometimes up the path and onto the road. Sometimes I’d push it to the waste ground at the end of my street and hack it round there a bit, till one of the neighbours complained. Job done though. I now had a rough idea how to ride.
It was obvious the Honda was too fucked to ever be a legally going concern. At least, it was more worn out than I knew how to fix. Getting it running was an achievement, but the lights were random, the exhaust was rotting away, and the brakes were suicidal. I knew if I wanted to get properly on the road, I needed something halfway decent and age appropriate. I can’t remember what happened to it in the end, but I have a vague feeling I sold it back to the guy I bought it off for the same money. Like my first marriage, it’s so long ago the details are mercifully hazy.
It took me the better part of the next year to save up a few hundred quid for a runner with tax and a ticket. My parents worked hard but it was always a hand to mouth existence so they couldn’t help. And my dad hated bikes for some reason I never figured out, though it might’ve been the Japanese that bothered him. He’d lost friends on the Burma Railway and once started a fight with my cousin Maureen’s boyfriend because he loved Datsuns and Toyotas and had convinced my mother to learn to drive in one. So, I worked. I got two paper rounds; I dug potatoes and picked fruit; and I did casual work behind the counter in local shops. My mother also let me sell all my Action Man stuff and fishing gear, which of course she’d paid for in the first place. I still feel guilty about this every time I think of her (she died of cancer in 2000). She spoiled me rotten as a kid, and had to work her arse off to do it.
Impressed at his useless son’s industry, my father actually came through for once. He’d ‘retired’ by that point but was still doing building work on the side, and he’d recently built an extension for a bike shop in town. I’m ashamed to say the name escapes me. (It’s still there, but totally different dealership now.) Leaving the building firm he’d worked for since he was demobbed had mellowed him a bit, and rather than watch me buy another junker, he took me there and chatted up the owner. I was coming up to seventeen now, so I didn’t need anything with peddles on it. The next stage up in my price range was a newish second-hand Yamaha YB 100 2-stroke; dinky little thing, bright red. I have no recollection now what it cost, but I had enough change for a decent lid and a Belstaff Trialmaster too, which was then a cheaper option than a leather jacket, unlike nowadays. (Not long after, I changed gear going round a bend and this also became the first of many bikes to throw me down the road.) Neither do I know now why I went for a 100 and not another 125. I imagine the cash was just burning a hole in me pocket and this was what was available, or it might’ve been the cost of insurance. Anyway, it was a means to an end. I needed two-wheeled transport to keep up with me mates and viewed the little Yammy as a steppingstone to taking my test and getting a big British bike, which to me remained the epitome of cool.
With army surplus boots and gloves, I was good to go, with all the power of a wounded gnat; off to seriously mis-spend my youth…