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Writer-insighter – Maybe it doesn't matter if it's true. So long as you believe it is.

Nearly Spring

But he was a young man, and the song of the lark made him blissfully happy, stirring the old longing that had accompanied him from Hammont. He felt as if someone were walking behind him with light footsteps, calling his name softly and tenderly.

When he stopped and turned to listen the voice stopped calling out, but when he turned back he felt the presence behind him again, as if it were trying to play a trick on him.

Hans Grimm, “Schlump.” 1928

They turned All Quiet On The Western Front into a Netflix movie, but the year before it was published, Schlump was out in print. It’s similar but not the same, about someone a lot younger than me now, who had the misfortune to be born just before my grandfather’s time and in a different country, so ending up in a trench in France with people like my grandfather, country boys from another country, trying to kill him every day.

I don’t know how that time was. But I’ve had the same feeling sometimes, that something young and happy is looking after me, but only when you’re out of doors, alone, in the sunlight.

And as soon as you stop to think, ‘So what actually is that?’ then it’s gone. I used to know it would be back. This cold, sodden, windy Spring it’s going to be a long time coming.

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The silence of the lands

It was probably today, but it might have been Friday. Either way it was a long time ago and Easter. I realised years ago that there was something wrong with my hearing. I’d get things wrong, not understand what people said they’d said, be accused of not listening when in fact I was listening as best I could. But the day like today, the day I’m thinking of at Easter all that time ago, it was the silence that was the loudest thing.

It wasn’t a religious experience, or maybe it was. Back in that Easter long ago I’d gone to my school with my friend Phil. We kept two Enterprise dinghies in winter storage under the parquet floor of the solid municipal 1930s assembly room in what had been the old Girls School before the co-ed revolution. The only reason Phil and I were there was to paint the boats for the new season. It took most of the day, a lot longer than we thought it would, to sand them down in a world when 17-year-olds didn’t have power sanders. But then, we didn’t have the right colour paint either, or not the colour we’d thought we were buying.

We spent all that time working on those boats and talking about the girls we knew and our plans, our huge teenage plans, although mostly those involved the desperate difficulty of finding a venue and then possibly less difficult, removing the clothing from those same girls rather than anything more long-term advantageous or profound. I remember that day a lot though, and I remember the silence we had as well, just working together on something we wanted to do, as well as the talk about the other thing we wanted to do. We got the boats painted, at least.

I had a brilliant Easter this year. Walking around Norwich on Friday, exploring Beccles on Saturday, then trying to find breakfast on Sunday, finding the Common Room in Framlingham closed, finding we didn’t want breakfast at The Crown, driving to Aldeburgh and fish and chips there, then realising I’d left my scarf in Framlingham and having to drive all the way back there, then a glass of wine at the Easton White Horse, then a junk shop where I bought a tyre iron and on to Seckford Hall, a secret place we found where for the price of a pot of tea you can pretend Enid Blyton will be along any minute now and you really do live in the style of Downton Abbey every day. It was good in the end, but a bit unsettling and 8 hours is a long time to spend going out for breakfast. It was gone six by the time we got back, the day the clocks sprang forward. Best beloved went to make a headstart on her accounts, I went shooting.

It was ok, considering the light was going and I was having to re-focus the scope to get a clear sight-picture every few shots by the last target, which was this one, a decent card apart from the one stupid flyer.

The range I shoot at is walking distance from where I live, so that’s what I did, walk there. I left the target rest in the boot of my car and just took my best rifle and a bag of ear defenders, ammunition, my sighting target, a pen and a bronze caliper to measure the size of the group of ten shots.

Then I walked back, gone seven in the evening, the few birds singing, the air still. But what I noticed most was the silence as I walked along the lane, the same sound I’d heard that other Easter, at the other end of the span of my life.

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A possible isn’t good enough

When I was a boy I used to shoot at the local rifle club every Thursday. I tried, but I wasn’t much good. I couldn’t see very well, the light was appallingly bad with a lot of glare, we had to lie on kapok mats impregnated with sweat every Thursday since the Boar War, which since you ask was a lot of Thursdays, thanks. I got eczema on my fingers from the lubricant on the bullets and the dust and fumes in that unventilated underground range made my chest feel funny most of the next day.

I shot around 94/100, usually. I was just about good enough to go to Bisley when I was fifteen, and I qualified as an adult marksman, so I can’t have been that bad, but shooting is always about being better.

This was last Friday’s target. Where I live, I’m lucky enough to have a range literally within walking distance, so after work, I put my best gun in its bag, grabbed my shooting bag with its ear defenders and sighting target and a screwdriver just in case, and walked down the hill, along the lane, and across the little bridge over the headwaters of the Deben to the old range. Maybe it started off as a quarry, I don’t know, but I do know that during the war, it was used by the tanks stationed at Glemham Hall to sight in their machine guns, trundling and squeaking and clanking their way down what’s still called Tank Road. It accounts for the sign that’s on the bridge now, saying “No Track Laying Vehicles. The local Home Guard used it for practising when they weren’t doing that.

The Hostile Coast

About a decade ago the local airfield opened the first and so far as I know the only museum to the Auxiliary Home Guard, the real suicide squad, whose job in case of invasion was to go to ground for two weeks and then slaughter as many Germans as they could, along with a select list of people who might be useful to an invading Nazi force. We’re not even ten miles from Shingle Street. This was a hostile coast.

Back in the now, though, or anyway, last Friday, I shot my first ever possible. It was with my lovely HW 77, not the 97 I wrote on the target, the first gun I ever bought new last September. First time out I shot a ten-shot group in 11mm, something I’ve never been able to do since. That’s why my possible 100 out of 100 wasn’t good enough.

As you can see from the picture, the hole at the top right was a snatched shot where I jerked the trigger. It cut the line between the nine and the ten, so it counts as a ten, but that’s not the problem—although obviously, it’s one of them. The big problem is the size of the group—twenty-two millimetres.

It’s not showing off. Ok, it’s a possible. Ok, it’s 100 out of 100. And yes, I was using a rest, thanks. It’s the size of the group. It’s double the spread of the first group I ever shot with this rifle. And I don’t know why. It’s almost as if it’s my shooting that’s at fault, and that can’t be right.

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Chanson d’Armour

One thing I never wanted to hear on a motorcycle was the Ra-ta-da-ta-da of my head, elbows, hips, knees and toes bouncing down the tarmac having come off it. Ok, you might have to be of a certain age and indeed of a more than certain pretentiousness to recognise the song and the joke in the title, if that’s not too strong a word for it, but if you ride, you’ll have thought about buying the stuff, if you haven’t already. Which I’m feeling as if everybody else in the universe already has.

Back when I started riding motorcycles, rider armour was something I read about in Bike magazine, something strictly for people like Barry Sheen, who was the nearest thing to the Bionic Man I’d ever heard of. For our younger readers, Barry Sheen dropped his bike at Daytona somewhere around 170mph when he was 24 when his tyre blew up.

“I was rolling, and I could feel all my skin coming off. I didn’t feel the leg because all I could feel was the skin tearing off my shoulders. I went to get up and looked down, and my leg was right-angled, poking under the other one.”

Barry Sheen

He broke his left femur, right wrist, forearm and collarbone, six broken ribs, and a few vertebrae, sandpapered a lot of his skin off and got himself a 40cm steel plate screwed into his leg bone to hold it together. I don’t know what it’s like to do 170 on a motorcycle, and on my antique BMW F650, it’s not something I’m likely to find out. But I do know I never want to feel anything like Barry Sheen that day. Or any other.

I’d seen a kid at school who came off his bike at something under 40mph, but as he was wearing one of those sleeveless tops with a strap over each shoulder, the kind of thing they made you wear at English schools for Games back in the days when the P.E. teacher would wander around the shower room to “make sure” everyone was washing. This kid had one big scab from his wrist to his shoulder for a couple of weeks. He’d given up gloves to keep cool. 

My view back then was that the more I looked like Mad Max, the cooler I’d look, so I bought myself a leather jacket. The one I wanted was in a proper motorcycle dealer in Bath, just about affordable, padded with something at the shoulder and the elbow and bulked me up massively. It was also an unseemly shade of orange, which was probably why it was affordable. The other problem was all I had was a Yamaha FS1E. Seriously.

Instead, I got a jacket made for me by a chain-smoking hippy in a weird shop in Bath’s Walcot Nation. He got the leather from cutting up old jackets, handbags, or wherever he could find it for free, then lined the coat with an old wool blanket he’d probably dug out of a decommissioned Cold War bunker under Box Hill. I got full marks for recycling and alternative cred, but it was about as protective as the mini-skirts it was probably made from, and it stank of cigarettes for months until the wind blew the smell away. 

When I got a 650 Triumph, I had to get something more becoming, so when I was on holiday and visited Truro market, I bought the Stranglers-style black leather jacket I’d always yearned for, for a massive £35. As Meatloaf used to tell us, it was long ago and far away. According to Google, that would be about £180 today, so it’s not so much better after all. When I got my Sportster, I got myself a Schott A2. Luckily, I never got to test either of these out seriously, but after that, I turned my Harley into a laser printer and a laptop to start a business that saw me around the world for 15 years or so, during which I didn’t have a bike and being dumb, gave away or sold all my kit, gloves, Ashman boots, Belstaff boots, open-face Bell 500, goggles, jackets, waxed cotton over-trousers, Rukka suit, the Schott, the lot.

Then, just before Christmas, Santa brought me a BMW 650. Before I rode it anywhere, I had to start from scratch, starting with a helmet. I drove up to Harleston on one of those crisp December days to find a shop full of bikes I didn’t even know the names of, where they totally ignored me, then on to a shed (always a sign of a better bike shop) full of guys my own age and more who tried very quietly but firmly to sell me a nice Triumph but didn’t have any helmets. When I got home, Best Beloved, who fondly recalled her tasselled leather jacket and Yamaha 650, took me to the nearest bike shop in Ipswich, marched me to the helmet racks and whipped out her bank card. She chose a flip-front helmet I’d never heard of. I tried it on in the shop, and the sales guy told me it was the right size. After talking me out of buying a Scott chain oiler, agreeing it would be ideal if I was riding Route 66 coast to coast but also pointing out quietly and firmly that, in fact, I wasn’t, she walked me to the till and then her car. 

The biggest problem was my head. It’s huge. Seriously. It’s 63cm and 64 if I need a trip to the barber. I tried the shiny new, never-heard-of-the-maker polycarb (I know..) helmet on in my home office and couldn’t believe three things: How heavy it was. How much my head hurt. That the nice guy in the shop was lying when he’d told me the helmet was my size.

It clearly said 61cm on the label on the back of it, and yes, I most definitely had said 63 in the shop. Another Saturday, another trip to the store, and a full refund. I got a Bell online instead, with the Gold ACU sticker. 

I’d forgotten, or rather never really knew, how fashion was now a massive part of motorcycles. This is good because it means old stock is Out Of Fashion, and the seller still has to sell it, so there’s a whole load of good stuff being sold off cheap because Oh-mi-Gard it’s last season’s gear. 

The same day we went to the bike shop in Ipswich I answered an ad on Gumtree that promised leather jeans for £30. After a tour of the town’s lesser architectural gems southeast of the railway station we found the house and the guy who said he was giving up riding motorcycles. Whether or not that was true, £30 bought a fantastic pair of leather bike jeans, padded at the knee. Ok, they zip from the wrong side and possibly, just possibly the cut makes them fit slightly like jodhpurs, more as if I was going to co-pilot Amy Johnson than ride a motorcycle, but hey. £30. A significant upgrade on Levi’s for protection anyway, and I’m too embarrassed to say when I remember Levi’s were £30 anyway.

The brand new Halversen gloves donated to a charity shop on Ebay were better than the ones I used to ride with, despite the Mad Max-style knuckle dusters that seem to be a legal requirement for riding gloves these days. The Bering jacket was the best thing though. I was intending to use my old leather jacket. Not the Schott that went to Ebay about five years back but the one I bought one Christmas in Fuengirola about 20 years back when it wouldn’t stop raining. After waxing it, soaking it in neatsfoot oil, daubing it with cocoa-butter and generally stinking my office up I realised that I might as well just buy something with armour and have done with it. 

The Bering was a ludicrous £89, and that’s from a man who still thinks £4.95 is a benchmark price for pheasant pie, chips and peas, which I used to get for quiet evenings on my own in Stow-On-The-Wold back when I had a 400-year old house there. It’s got armour in the elbows and the shoulders, and a slot to stuff more armour down the back. It’s blue instead of leather coloured, with a twin zip up the front and a zip across the shoulders at the back, so that in summer you can ventilate yourself on the three weeks it ever gets above 80 Fahrenheit in the U.K. It’s made of 600 denier Cordura with a woven aluminium zip-in full lining for winter, and a handy strap and a brass buckle at the throat. More to the point, despite all the protection and windproofing, it doesn’t make me look like I’m auditioning for a Mad Max film. Best Beloved, who sews for a living, took one look at it and said “That’s a £300 jacket.”

Now, maybe it’s me, but if I’m spending £300 on a jacket I’m only going to wear in one eventuality, on the back of a motorcycle or anywhere else, then I want it to look pretty special. Some lizard skin detailing, maybe, or a paisley lining. Instead I get armour and fine-spun aluminium. When I started riding the biggest deal in protective clothing was whether you could find white sea-boot socks to turn down over the top of your knee-length zip-up boots, the ones where the only armour insert was a steel plate in the right instep, for the kick-starter.

The older I get the more I realise that saying is true: the past is another country. They do things differently there. And just sometimes, at least when it comes to motorcycle clothing, they do some things a whole lot better here.

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A possible

Once upon a time, in a land long ago, there was a thing called the Frome & District Pistol Club. That’s how long ago it was.

I’d learned how to shoot rifles, or .22 rifles at least, at the local TA Centre in the town I grew up in, back in the days when no air conditioning, an underground 25-yard range, canvas-covered kapok mats that Lord Roberts had probably personally specified just after the Boer War and no shortage of adults who would have quite happily clubbed to the floor any kid arsing around with a gun in a nano-second passed for a totally normal Thursday evening in a small town.

I loved it. I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and that was the point. I wanted to get better. Slowly, I did. The rifle club sent me to Bisley and somehow at fifteen I shot well enough to get my badge as an adult Marksman, which now I think is just a first and not a great step, but a decent start. I couldn’t afford a decent rifle then, and let it lapse through Sixth Form, but took up shooting again when I went to the University of Bath, and hence the Frome & District. There were other ranges, at Devizes and the weird tunnel range somewhere out towards Radstock in a converted railway cutting under the Mendips. I recall someone shooting a “bullet-proof” vest with a black powder .36 caliber pistol there, to see what happened. It was ok, nobody was wearing it. Except it wouldn’t have been ok, because although on examination the ball hadn’t penetrated the vest, it set fire to it instead, and we had no way of measuring blunt-force trauma.

The Smith & Wesson Model 28

I shot all through university. When we weren’t doing .22 pistol shooting at our indoor range built in some old quarry scrape we used the Number Two range at the School of Infantry in Warminster, backstopped by the escarpment of Salisbury Plain. That was when I bought my first gun, a .357 Smith & Wesson Model 28. The frame was too big for my hand and more so with rubber Pachmyer grips on what was a heavy brute of a gun designed back in the 1950s for the American police market. I should have bought a six-inch Model 19, but I couldn’t wait. Mr State Trooper, please don’t stop me, as Bruce Springsteen sang.

Maybe you got a nice car. Maybe you got a pretty wife.

Well mister, all I got is attitude. And I had it all of my life.

Writing this the lyric ‘Pappa go to bed now, it’s getting late. Nothing we can say or do is gonna change anything now’ might be more apt, but as the Boss said. Number Two range was freezing cold, but not so Heytesbury Battle Range, up on top of the Plain where the Army used to let us play on their big boys range now and again if we’d been very good. There were trenches to jump over, electric pop-up targets, and buildings to clear and it was generally all good fun for a growing lad. I met the Special Boat Services guy who invented and luckily for him, patented the SPAS 12, which might have been manufactured by but I can guarantee certainly wasn’t developed by Franchi.

The S.P.A.S 12 I tested on Salisbury Plain.

He’d designed this combat 12-bore shotgun to shoot semi-automatically, meaning it would fire every time you pulled the trigger, re-loading itself, and if you pressed a button it worked as a pump-action, I think in case it jammed. It was a long time ago but I think he’d also tried making it fully automatic, so if you pulled the trigger it simply discharged every cartridge in it, but as there were only seven or eight there didn’t seem to be much point, and it was uncontrollable anyway unless you were built like King Kong, or at least like the chunky kinds of guys the SBS hired in those days.

After university I got a job through BUNAC, teaching kids to shoot on a summer camp in Wisconsin, bought a $200 twelve-year-old Chevrolet and a .22 AR7, and had the best summer of my entire life, thanks to a red-haired cheerleader, a lake, free ammunition, my shooting range and Hunter Thompson, who I tracked down to Woody Creek after driving 1,100 miles to get there. The AR7 didn’t last long, not through any fault of the gun, although it did have the fault of shooting high right and didn’t have adjustable sights. About two weeks after I bought it the police showed up at summer camp and told me I wasn’t allowed to have it because I wasn’t a US citizen. Without citizenship I could buy any kind of shotgun if I wanted, or anything that used black powder, maybe a nice .44 of the kind cowboys used to holster, but nothing using a modern smokeless powder cartridge, however tiny compared to a .44. I didn’t make the rules.

They had an odder rule in America anyway. Back in 1934 when Bonnie and Clyde roamed the land the National Firearms Act set a fee of $200 payable to the Bureau of Alcohol. Tobacco and Firearms if you were a citizen and wanted to buy a machine gun. Today that law, and weirdly, that fee, $200, still stands. Even more weird, in 1968 the US Supreme Court decided that that original NFA was unconstitutional. Not because it banned people from having machine guns unless they had a license. Oh dear me, no. If your idea of your inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness happens to include burning through ammunition at 800 rounds per minute then no American court is going to say that maybe that wasn’t quite what the Founding Fathers had in mind. No, ma’am.

The reason the Supreme Court effectively chucked out the 1934 Act was that if you had a machine gun in 1933, then the Act came in the next year and you thought, gosh darn it, I’d better register this shootin’ iron and stay legal, then you’d be incriminating yourself; by applying for the licence for the machine gun you had, you’d be saying in writing that you had a machine-gun, and that’s against the law, bud. Trying to stay legal and register your unregistered gun meant you were saying you possessed an unregistered gun, which you or I might say was, like some other parts of the Constitution, a fact we find to be self-evident. And that fact also violated the individual’s privilege from self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Get out of that, in the land of the free.

I drove across America un-armed anyway, and nothing ever happened to make that the wrong decision, wherever I went.

The AR7 I had to hand back.

And then London, and no decent ranges I could find and arsey London attitudes when I did track them down, and the dismal Stone range, a train ride and a twenty-minute walk away in darkest Kent. I stopped shooting then and didn’t really start again until I took up clay pigeon shooting when I’d moved out to the edge of the M25. All of that pretty much stopped as a regular thing with Dunblane. I didn’t much want to be associated with that, nor the sickening virtue-signaling of the Home Office Minister I wrote to, protesting the confiscation of legal firearms would do nothing whatsoever to stop gun crime. I wish I’d kept the letter he wrote and signed, saying m maybe not really, but the government “had to be seen to” be doing something. Or in code, The Sun won’t stand for it if we aren’t.

For a very long time, I thought that was that. There isn’t any shooting apart from clays and after I lost half a tooth exactly where my cheek met the stock of my rather nice Winchester skeet gun, the prospect of losing more of them somewhat paled. Until about this time last year, when I discovered not only that yes, there actually were still shooting ranges around, but you could join them, go through a monitored probation period, and after that, shoot pretty much any time you chose, at mine anyway. Which even more amazingly, was walking distance from where I live.

I bought myself an air-rifle about ten years ago when thanks to keeping chickens we were plagued with rats. Big rats. They eat chickens if you let them, which I had no intention of doing, and as my very old cat wasn’t stupid enough to take them on alone I had to give him a hand. I thought it was getting a bit too Country Living when I found myself sitting in the sun at six in the morning, wearing only a dressing gown and wellies, cradling a mug of tea and an air rifle, waiting for the rats to come for their breakfast.

Home on the range

For my birthday last year, I bought myself a better one, a rather beautiful Wierauch 97 with an unbelievable Czechoslovakian telescopic sight that does one thing well: it shoots exactly where you aim it, which if you know anything about shooting at all, you’ll know to be a fairly rare thing. Three weeks ago I managed to do the almost impossible, shooting a possible. In other words, if the bullet did actually cut the line on the target, which it looks as if it did, means 100 out of a possible 100.

My beloved partner likes to shoot some Sundays too and from a standing start, after just a couple of months regularly shoots in the high 90s and about half the time, better than I do. Her challenge is being consistent but then, that’s what shooting is about. Get the group small and in the same place and you can move it onto the bull using the adjustments on the sights; if you don’t shoot consistently then it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll never get better. It’s about controlling yourself, your breathing, your posture, your relaxation, your mindfulness, I suppose now. All of that. And some of it’s about remembering a summer, with a lake, a shooting range, a flag and a cheerleader called Nancy-Jean.

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As a name for a motorcycle it’s ok. It means timber wolf, in Spanish, but maybe that means Mexican. Oooops, I meant Microsoft Spanish, for whom Spanish means Old Spanish. Obviously in global internet land, Microsoft’s 14 year-old-in-Ohio sensibilities reign supreme. Which is a whole other story. And this one is about me. Like all my others, as yours are all about you and Charles Dickens’ were about him. And especially Martin Amis’s were all about him. God, were they about him. I don’t know if he ever had a motorcycle. Hunter Thompson definitely had several, but as he wrote himself, Mister Kurz, he dead. 

Lobo was the name of the band that sang A Dog Named Boo, so long ago that I can’t even admit I know the tune. I heard it during my formative years, the ones still a-forming.

Like Arlo Guthrie on his motorcycle I don’t want to die. Despite drinking kettle de-scaler yesterday morning, calling NHS 111 and having a not-great day thinking I might actually die of this, which wasn’t helped by eating a whole packet of spicy beetroot. I love that stuff, except they really ought to put a reminder on the packet of what happens when you look in the toilet bowl, to tell you that you almost certainly will live more than another three days and if you don’t, it won’t be anything to do with beetroots, unless a beetroot lorry runs you over. The gist being that I’d quite like to stay alive for the foreseeable future. 

So obviously, I bought myself a motorcycle for Christmas. Unlike the song, although I’ve got my motor running, first time every time, but hey, it’s a BMW. What did you expect? I’ve absolutely no wish to hit the highway because I know from past experience it bloody hurts. Thankfully, my off-bike excursions were few and decidedly minor, but I remember spending an afternoon in Gene Fleck’s Meadow Inn bar in Wisconsin with the road closed while an emergency crew searched against the clock to find someone’s foot. I’d seen him and his girl earlier in the day on a Harley, riding like an accident looking for somewhere to happen, which it duly did.

On which I have no intention of hitting the highway like a battering ram, nor like anything else.

I wasn’t prepared for the change. And no, that wasn’t why I got a motorcycle again. I did it because life is short. I did it because I wanted to smell the grass and the trees and the fields I passed through. I did it because I wanted to do it again before I did.

Where I began the process I laughingly call growing-up, there wasn’t any public transport to speak of. There were infrequent busses, taxis weren’t a thing for a sixteen or seventeen-year-old in a Wiltshire town and even if being chauffeured to places by my Mummy was an option the way it seems to be for kids today, I’d have died of self-loathing to ask. Probably. After I had the lift, obviously. All of which meant that at sixteen I did what was the fairly normal thing and bought a Yamaha FS1-E. It wasn’t just me. Look at the sales figures. Back then, you had a moped only as long as it took to get a motorcycle, which was your seventeenth birthday. Thanks to some bureaucratic insanity, or more likely in England, nobody could be bothered to check the sense of the rules, or read them properly, a seventeen-year-old could perfectly legally if predictably briefly stick a sidecar on a Kawasaki Z1, stick L-plates on it and set off for the obituary column of their local paper, when there were such things.

Not me, baby. I bought a Honda CB 175. I had an Army surplus shiny PVC button-up coat. It felt like, it looked like, it probably was something a dustman on a motorcycle would look like, as a friend of mine thoughtfully pointed out in case it was something I’d overlooked. It had to go, even though it didn’t very fast. I put it in the Wiltshire Times. Nobody even rang the phone number. I put the price up 30% the next week and got about 20 calls. I sold it to the first one who came to see it, even though he asked for a discount. Which he didn’t get. I didn’t bother to tell him about the 30% discount he could have had the week before. 

Then it was probably my favourite bike, the Triumph T25, the kind of thing that now sells for over £4,000 any day of the week and which then you felt lucky if you could raise £200 on it. It was fun, and I learned some good lessons on it. One of them being that if you ignore that little triangular sign warning you there’s a junction ahead then you’ll go about three-quarters of the way across it before the twin-shoe Triumph brake stops you. Nothing came. Nothing did on back lanes around Tellisford in those days.

The Triumph got swapped for a Norton 500 that ran for two weeks out of the two years I had it. It sent me spinning down the road like a dead fly in Cardiff one black ice night, after I’d left the electric fire warmth of some girl’s flat (nothing doing there. Never was, with anybody), lost the bike out from under me at about 5 mph, came to a halt against a parked car and had some Welshman peer down at me to tell me “Duh, it’s icy mind.’ I left Wales as soon as I could and bought another Triumph, a real 1970s post-Easy rider identity crisis machine. It was a 650cc Tiger engine, shoehorned into a chrome-plated Norton Slimline frame. Instead of the rocker clip-ons you’d expect it had highish handlebars and cut-off exhausts. Just header pipes in fact, but with Volkswagen Beetle mufflers smacked into them in a Bath car-park, with Halford’s slash-cut trim bolted on the ends. I wasn’t a rocker, but I thought it rocked. 

It took two weeks to get the petrol tank the way I wanted it, a deep, deep black you could lose your soul in, sprayed on then sanded, sprayed on then sanded, sprayed on then sanded about fifteen times in the kitchen of my definitively smelly Southampton student flat, the kind of place that gave Ian McEwan the idea for The Cement Garden, only a bit less appealing. On the first trip out on that gloriously glossy bike I rode up to Salisbury, escorted by a girlfriend whose parents purported to believe that she had her own spare room at my university halls of residence, the ones I’d left months before. We got to her parents’ newish house in the summer sunlight, said hello, put the bike in the driveway. Then decided we’d go to a local pub because a) Wiltshire b) nothing much else to do until her parents went out c) that’s what people did.

I started the bike but it didn’t fire first time, so I tickled the Amal carburettor and tried again. There was no air filter on the carb – there often wasn’t in those days – so when it backfired the spurt of flame came straight out into the open air and set light to the petrol that had trickled down the outside of the carb float bowl. I appreciate that these are words that younger readers won’t even recognise, but we had to.   I had my leather jacket on, a full-face Cromwell ACU gold-rated helmet, and long leather gloves, so I just reached down nonchalantly to switch the fuel tap to Off. No petrol, no fry, as Bob Marley didn’t sing. Except I didn’t turn the petrol off. I managed to pull the rubber petrol feed line off instead. The flames came up to chest level.

My first thought was to run for it, but my second was that I’d just put three gallons in the tank and I seriously doubted I could run faster than that. All I could think of to do was reach into the flames and turn the petrol tap off, so that’s what I did. I couldn’t see past my elbow in the flames, but it worked or I wouldn’t be telling this story. The insulation on the electrics had burned off so the corn was fused on until I got out my trusty Buck knife (something else we took entirely as normal in the West Country) and cut what was left of the wires. My girlfriend’s mother saw the whole thing from the kitchen. She waited until the flames had gone out before she came out to tell me I’d dropped oil on her driveway. 

There was a break after that, for university and unhappily London then Aylesbury and Bath until luck and an unusual skillset saw me in Chicago, on a 650 Yamaha that might or might not have been technically stolen, blasting around Lakeshore Drive and the blue lights area, under half the city, overlooking some huge American river, me and an Italian buddy from summer camp on his bike, living if not the dream then certainly some kind of alternative reality. To this day I don’t know why I did that. No insurance, no clear provenance to the bike, certainly no observance of the speed limits, and only my trusty grey cardboard AA international driving licence that didn’t mention motorcycles. But nothing happened. Back then that was all that mattered. 

A gap of some years and then a BMW R1000, a bike that vibrated so much that a trip from London to Wiltshire left me literally unable to make a sentence for about fifteen minutes. It felt good though, that lumpy, dumpy, so-solid bike. I traded that one for a Harley-Davidson Sportster which is what I thought was the ultimate motorcycle ought to be before I found out that I needed to spend £200 a month pretty much every month to get it the way it ought to have left the factory before their accountants had a say in the recommended retail price. It got stolen, we recovered it and instead of putting it back in showroom metal flake purple turned it jet black, bored it out to 1200, and put Brembo four-pot brakes and a fuel-injector on it before it transmogrified into a laptop and a laser printer, when laser printers were a long way from the couple of hundred a good one is now.

And somehow that was 30 years ago. This time the iron horse is a BMW F650, almost as old as when I stopped riding for a while, but with a documented 13,000 miles on it. My idea of common sense says changing the oil and the filter and swapping out the original brake lines and replacing them with stainless steel would first of all look cool but possibly more importantly, be quite a sensible way of not relying on thirty year old rubber. I mean, would you? On any Saturday night?  

In the intervening coughty years I’ve either sold or given away my original Schott jacket, the gloves, the Rukka, the Ashman Metropolitan Police long boots and the Belstaff scrambler boots. The Cromwell helmet and the Bell 500 open-face are long gone. I need everything, from the toes upwards and I find that most of the names I grew up with such as Ashman or Cromwell just don’t exist any more. I bought another Bell, but a full-face ACU gold Sharp 5-rated lid this time. I got some gloves, some chain lube and a tube of Solvol Autosol to keep the chrome shiny. I found some leather jeans and my old not-Schott jacket that I bought in Spain and after only three applications of neatsfoot oil and old-fashioned dubbin and hanging it over a radiator it’s now soft enough to be wearable and looks, I think, pretty darned good, even if it doesn’t have a single CE rating to its name. I’ve skipped the red Hermetite that used to decorate every pseudo-serious biker’s jeans.

Of the kids I knew that got in Bad Trouble on a bike, one was drunk and showing off. He died. My cousin lost his job and an inch off one leg when he was swiped by a car that ignored him on a roundabout. One in Wiltshire rode his bike under a combine harvester. He died too. It wasn’t really funny and I try not to think of him looking like SpongeBob SquarePants, with his arms and legs sticking out of the straw. He’d had a twenty-year break from bikes and had just picked up an early retirement pension pay-off. He didn’t read the T&Cs that said you still can’t ride like an arse. The American guy I didn’t ride around Chicago with lost his foot and they didn’t find it in time to put it back on. For all I know it’s still in a field in Wisconsin.

CE-rated armour wouldn’t have helped a single one of them. I’m certainly not saying safety gear isn’t worth the effort, or I wouldn’t have specced out my new helmet so carefully. But motorcycles aren’t the safest thing. You have to watch your sides, your front and what’s underneath you, as well as your back. 

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You Must Be Joaquin

I’ve got a special deal with my local cinema. You pay them £90 and you can see any new film they’re screening, as many times as you want, any day. It’s a good deal, except it doesn’t cover older films, like It’s A Wonderful Life, and what kind of Christmas is it if you have to pay to see that? Jimmy Stewart would have had something to say about it. Elmer would, anyway.

On Tuesday, because I’m on a week’s leave (Twas the week before Christmas, I wasn’t at work, I’d bought all the presents, this wasn’t a perk..) I went to see Napolean. The film, you understand, the one with Joaquin Phoenix who apparently isn’t the same Joaquin I saw dancing flamenco in Manchester about a hundred years ago and didn’t like. It’s confused me for years.

It’s Ridley Scott, so you know the lighting is going to be epic and it’ll all be ten times better on a big screen. And according to Indiewire, Joaquin turned the whole film around.

“Joaquin is about as far from conventional as you can get. Not deliberately, but out of intuition,” Scott said. “That’s what makes him tick. If something bothers him, he’ll let you know. He made [‘Napoleon’] special by constantly questioning. Joaquin is probably the most special, thoughtful actor I’ve ever worked with.” 

Scott ended up rewriting the whole “goddamn film” to focus on what Napoleon Bonaparte was like in real life. 

Like anyone else with access to Google, I know a bit about Napolean. Corsican. Hat. One hand shoved in his tunic front. The Nile. Nelson. Trafalgar. Waterloo, where the glorious and victorious by God’s good grace faced-down Johnny Frenchy and taught the Continent the doctrine of peace through superior firepower entirely single-handed, apart from those pesky Germans who turned up to help at the last moment, and the Russian Winter, obviously. I thought making one of the characters took tath too far. Joaquin was that you who did that? Stop it. It’s corny. They practically said it in inverted commas and did the fingers thing at the same time.

So I know some things about Napolean. And I know something Joaquin Phoenix and Ridle Scott apparently don’t know about him.

Napolean wasn’t American.

I nay! Like, amazeballs, ya?

Whatever else he did or didn’t do, Napolean never, not once, ever, spoke with an American accent. Yes, I know it’s a film. No, I think maybe making the character speak in French might not have worked, although it didn’t do Das Boot or Der Untergang any harm. But Napolean speaking like a minor player in The Sopranos, I’m 99.9% sure that never happened.

“With ‘Napoleon, I think we dug in and found the character, or as close to what he may have been,” Scott added. “With Joaquin, we can rewrite the goddamn film because he’s uncomfortable. And that kind of happened with ‘Napoleon,’” he said. “We unpicked the film to help him focus on who Bonaparte was. I had to respect that, because what was being said was incredibly constructive. It made it all grow bigger and better.

You know what, as Tony Soprano might have said? I think that’s bullshit. I can see there might be a good Napolean-Tony Soprano dramatic link, the outsider striving to get in, the quest for dignity, the allergic reaction to being contradicted and all that schtick. But it rings hollow. The German characters in the film speak with a German accent. The British characters speak with a British accent. Most of the French characters speak with an accent that ok, wouldn’t get them a part in ‘Allo ‘Allo, but their accents aren’t noticeably American. Not so our hero.

And I’m really afraid that’s what it’s all about. In the dying days of a time when America could credibly call itself the global policeman, even though the Sherrif isn’t supposed to elect himself, this is the story. If you have a big budget film, you’d better make sure that the kid in Ohio knows who the good guy is, and conflicted and violent though he is, he’s American, kid, you betcha.

Right at the end, in what can only loosely be described as the closing credits, there was a body count of how many people died thanks to Napolean, something that US forces didn’t bother to do in Afghanistan or Iraq because unless they were going home under the Stars and Bars they literally did not count. And six million people dead thanks to this Corsican guy, isn’t that a bit like Hitler? Despite the American accent? And the violence? The waste, the obsession, the futility of having a Republican revolution and declaring yourself Emperor? Well hey, you can’t make an omelet, as Tony would spell it, without breaking legs. Maybe it’s all a really clever allegory, but I don’t buy it. I think it’s the biggest plea to that kid in Ohio I’ve ever seen.

Yeah, there may be all these folk talking about moral ambiguities and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose but kid, remember this. We’re OK if we keep shooting the bad guys. And I don’t know why you did it, Ridley. I thought you were better than that. Or maybe it’s just a dumb movie.

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The Walk

The problem is, I don’t know what to call it. Except that’s not the only problem.

I started it ten years ago. And five years ago. And two years ago and again last year, this year, as it’s not quite the end of this one, but there’s a thing I do at the end of the year that I’ve done for a long time now. I drive to a field where once there were 3,500 people, every one of them younger than I am now, some of them a third my age and younger.

I get out of my car and read their names off the stones that record them. Sometimes it’s been in this thin winter daylight, more often I only remember at the last moment and the field is in the wrong direction and it’s Christmas and there’s stuff to do and anywya, usually it’s raining.

Lt. Col Joseph Elmer. Shea.

I go to this field anyway and read their names out loud. So that they aren’t forgotten at the side of this road that used to be their perimeter track, that ran around the ends of the three runways that used to be here. It takes a while to read the eighty-two names written on these stones and get the names right, most of them Anglo, but a lot of them Hispanic, a few more of them German, here on these stones at the edge of an American airfield, in the rain, somewhere in Suffolk.

So maybe this year will be the year I finally write it, if I can, and tell the story of how the eighty-third name, the one not written on these stones, the one I have to add now because he went to join the others gone before, missed his transport back from a dance and had to walk back to base, all twenty-two miles from Ipswich, along roads that don’t exist now, past houses that didn’t exist then. Tracing the route has been difficult, not least as maps back then didn’t show airfields, and didn’t for a long time after the war. I think I know the way now. I’ve walked half of it, albeit in two stages, Ipswich to Woodbridge, then later, Woodbridge to Glemham the old way, through Melton and Wickham Market, the way the road ran then. Maybe this year. Because I said I would.

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At the speed of sight

If you’ve ever shot clay pigeons you’ll know that because they’re moving, and some distance away from you, you have to shoot not where they are, but where they’re going to be. If you haven’t then given the hysteria around shooting I’d better explain that a clay pigeon is a flat disc of er, clay, thrown into the air by a launching machine. It’s supposed to be similar to shooting pigeons or pheasants or grouse but I’ve never had any interest in shooting anything living, so I don’t know. Clay pigeons don’t taste so good, I do know.

Back when the world was young I had a friend called Simon. He was an Old Etonian to whomlife hadn’t been altogether kind; I met him when we both worked, if that’s not too strong a word for it, taking people out to lunch in London and trying to get them to buy market research reports of varying degrees of antiquity. He had a fairly dreadful girlfriend about whom possibly more but as the poet said, the past is a different country and they do things differently there. She certainly did, anyway. Simon, my girlfriend at the time and I decided one day that we’d all appreciate a day at a country show, so after about two hours of driving that’s where we ended-up. It wasn’t the Royal Show and I can’t exactly remember where it was, other than Aylesbury and keep on going for at least an hour. I remember it was a blisteringly hot day and I’d been forbidden to buy anything after I’d come back from the Badminton Horse Trials with white moleskin jeans and WM Williams jodphur boots on my credit card. Both of which would have been fine if I’d been tying kangaroos down, or waiting for my billy to boil, but living in Kings Langley such opportunities were rare. Although I did find a white wallaby within walking distance, somewhat to my surprise.

Simon and I both shot. Him because an ancestor once held William the Conqueror’s horse for ten minutes and got given half of Oundle or somewhere as thanks and that’s what you pretty much have to do with a country seat; me because I’d learned how to shoot at a school that most definitely wasn’t Eton and I was good enough at it to win my Marksman badge at Bisley at the age of fifteen and a couple of cups and things for clay pigeon shooting. Back then I had an old but nice Aya Number 4, a light side-by-side 12-bore which was a good working farm gun if not very smart, and a Winchester Super Trap, which was a heavy, nicely-made American over and under specifically built for shooting clay pigeons.

I didn’t have either of them with me that day, although back then people took their own shotguns to country shows to compete in clay pigeon events, either for the prizes, to swank about in the pub afterwards or again, because back then, that’s what you did in the countryside.

To be clear, competition shooting is nothing to do with killing anything except clays or pieces of paper. It’s about competing, in something that has an immediate result, which is what I like and liked about it, then and now. You hit the target or you don’t, and try as you might, 95% of the time you’ve got nobody to blame except yourself if you don’t. It’s about control, calculation and calmness, almost like a Zen thing and on those perfect days, when you’re balanced and centred and it’s going right you don’t need to see the target to know you hit it exactly where you wanted to. You can sense it. You feel it. And somehow the feeling is almost always right.

Simon and I weren’t looking for a fight, or a challenge, nor anything else, but while we were looking at the laser shoot some farm boys heard our accents, which back then were a bit full-on Lots Road Bray, yah? As we, and most of the girls we were interested in used to say far too often, even on holiday in France, where they assumed I was German.

Rarely! SAY funny, yah?

Rarely funny or not, the farm boys quite reasonably assumed that city boys with that sort of voice might talk a good game but probably couldn’t shoot as well as them. So we all had to find out.

Simon and I were one team, the two farm boys on the other. We didn’t put money on it, but it was probably the most seriously competitive shooting I’ve ever been involved in, Bisley included. It wasn’t about money, because there wasn’t any involved. It was more being thought to be rubbish at something I knew I wasn’t rubbish at. Whether or not that was a family hangover I’m not getting into here, but I think it was the same for Simon too. The five years leading up to that had given him a bit of a kicking too.

Challenge accepted, the thing was these were laser shotguns. Real shotguns, but they weren’t firing cartridges. When you pulled the trigger nothing came out of the barrel except a laserbeam. Whether the clays were normal clays or not I don’t know, but a buzzer sounded to show if you’d hit the clay with the laserbeam or not. An instant result. And that was pretty much the acclimatisation problem too. Laser beams are just light. Light travels at 983,571,056 feet per second. Ask Einstein. Pellets in Number 7 shot, a normal clay pigeon load, travel at 1,200 feet per second. I’d say you can see the difference, but you can’t. At about 100 feet away and 50 or 60 feet in the air a high clay crossing right to left would need maybe the width of two imaginary fingers to the right, between the muzzle and the clay. You have add some lead, (no, not as in Led Zeppelin, lead, as in the blind leading the blind, although hopefully not with shotguns) which means shoot where the clay is going to be, not where it is. The cluster of shot is going to take some time, albeit fractions of a second, to get to where the clay is and by the time it does, it isn’t. With light, no lead. The virtual shot is travelling at the speed of light. You still have to swing the gun onto the target and follow it. You still have to judge the clay’s trajectory. You still have to anticipate where it’s going to be. But no lead.

It was a long challenge. There were never more than two clays in it. We lead, then the farm boys did, then we got it back, then it was level. I think in the end we won, Simon and I, but not by more than one clay out of fifty. Every one of the four of us had learned something by the time we all shook hands. Shooting teaches you about yourself. It certainly teaches you about patience and self-control, anticipation and precision and planning.

Simon died over ten years ago. I wish he hadn’t.

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Easter and the ghost dance

Back when chicks had body hair….

Long, long ago, it was Easter and the quiet that comes over country places came over the town I lived in. It was on the edge of Salisbury Plain and Easter was on the edge of summer. I remember two Easters really well, both of them for their near-silence, the same silence I felt this year, before the birds really start singing for Spring again.

The first one was a real awakening. I was fourteen, at school, and although we had the traditional fetishisation of football, cricket and rugby, we also had two utterly cool teachers who took Games too. They did Other Stuff. Like Sailing. Like taking me gliding. Encouraging me to do tennis lessons.

Which I did, in my own time, and loved it, to the extent that a decade later I bought one of the very last wooden racquets, living in London, to play mixed doubles in Clissold Park. It seemed to me a very normal thing to do, but looking back I’m not really so sure that in fact it was, then or now. Not buying a wooden racquet – I’ve still got it and I still think it’s better than any awful metal twangy thing. It’s more controllable and it still gave enough punch to make the utter arse who was serving straight at my eight year-old partner, the host’s daughter, one Suffolk summer weekend extremely sorry when he tried the same thing with me and got the ball straight back in his face. Not that, but the whole “I say chaps, let’s play tennis, me, the girl I was at uni with who lives round the corner now, her brother and his girlfriend, who I rather fancy and who may well, I dare say, be moderately impressed by my rather spiffing new racquet.” Not that she seemed to be, but it was worth a shot.

The cool Other Games Stuff teachers, both of whom are probably dead by now, were Mrs Shearn (Physics, normally) and Joe Collins (P.E.). Not that you’d call him anything except Sir to his face. There were two P.E. teachers, Joe Collins and a horrible runty one with a brand new tracksuit and immaculate trainers who tried so very, very hard to be cool and hard and fit and PE-teachery and who could never in a million years be as cool as Mr Collins in the fit/hard/Proper Teacher stakes, however hard he tried. And he did. He drove around the town in his new Ford Escort slowing down at every pub and peering through the windows to see if he could spot anyone from school inside, which in those long-ago days was a thing. But it didn’t make any difference.

I almost felt sorry for the other P.E. teacher. Almost.

Whatever he did he could never in a million years be as cool/fit/hard/see above for other adjectives as Mr Collins because Mr Collins had been a paratrooper. And of an age – and this was so long ago – that that meant he’d been a paratrooper in what was then called The War. You know. Arnhem. Crossing The Rhine. Probably not the invasion of Crete, given that was the other lot. But still so far from anything the runty one could do to ever match-up. These days I almost feel sorry for him, looking back. But not much.

Somehow Mr Collins and Mrs Shearn had carved themselves out a niche looking out for kids like me, kids who didn’t like games much. Apart from sailing, which they took us to every Wednesday through all of Summer term and Autumn term until ice covered the lake where we kept our boats and they were put away until Easter, stored under the Edwardian parquet floor of the old Girls School dining room, where my friend Phil and I went to paint them one Easter. Every year around this time, while I’m getting my own boat ready, making mistakes with the paint the same way Phil and I did back then, but now on my own, in a boatyard by the water, 200 miles and far too many years away from that time, I think of it still. Back then we bought the wrong colour paint; now, using a roller instead of a brush I’ve managed to speckle my boat with flecks of dried paint stuck in the liquid paint from the tin, giving it a clean finish only slightly marred by the bright white topsides pebble-dash effect. That was the second Easter I remember a lot.

The first one involved Mrs Shearn as well. She’d driven I think three of us up to Nympsfield, near Stroud, where unbelievably we went gliding. We didn’t go to Eton or anything out of the very ordinary type of school in rural Wiltshire, but somehow we went there and flew, just for one day. A hugely odd thing happened after the flight that I can’t explain. It wasn’t a dream or a memory thing because I remember talking about it immediately after it happened. We did our flights and went to the gliding club, marvelling slightly at the wooden propellor on the wall and the handlebar moustache of the man behind the bar, then after we’d had our Cokes we walked back across the field that served as the airstrip. I could see us walking across the field, but from about 200 feet up, as I was walking. I’ve never been able to explain it. After that, Mrs Shearn drove us the hour or so back to Trowbridge in the school Ford Transit bus we used for the weekly sailing trips. I remember sitting in the bus waiting for I can’t recall what when we got back. The Budget was being broadcast on the van’s radio, as the Spring built its strength up in the shade of the big trees on Wingfield Road.

I think I remember these silences because they were beginnings. And because I loved the people there, even though I didn’t know it or anything like it. Beginnings are always special times. Those two Easters always will be, for me.

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