TRD issue 36 – August 2000
One hundred and eighteen Russian submariners died at the bottom of the Barents Sea, victims of the fiscally frozen peace that followed the Cold War. Fortunately the grim reality of the dreadful drawn-out deaths of the crew members that were unlucky enough to survive the original torpedo explosions, were buried under a mountain of Royal Family fluff.
At the beginning of the month the nation celebrated the fact that the hundred-year-old Queen Mum, was still able to perform the Royal Wave (although ‘palace insiders’ admitted that she struggled with the Mexican variety). Interestingly none of the reports mentioned whether or not she received a telegram from her daughter. A fortnight later it was announced – with great pride – that Prince William (with maybe just a teeny bit of help) had managed to gain enough mediocre A levels to gain access to St Andrews – which was of course of crucial importance because attending a good university will undoubtedly do wonders for his future job prospects.
The original working title for this month’s offering was: “Women… D’oh!” However I decided that while the Homer reference (that’s Simpson, not the Greek geezer) gave a clue to the subject matter, it wasn’t quite right. But a recent near miss caused me to pause and contemplate the many dangers just waiting for the opportunity to teach any of us a painful lesson, so I do want to discuss women and accidents.
I’d screeched to a full-on emergency stop, narrowly avoiding a costly collision with an S-class Mercedes. The driver, a woman of around fifty with the steely glint of an ’84 Thatcher, turned her head slightly in my direction, before tilting her nose disdainfully and flooring the V8. As I clunked my bike back into neutral and kicked it back to life, I couldn’t help reflecting that the overwhelming majority of the accidents and near misses I’d been involved in over the years could be directly attributed to women.
I am not however, suggesting for a moment that women have been responsible whenever danger has loomed, far from it. All I’m saying is that they have often been central to the overall drama. So much so, that it would be unwise to ignore such a potentially lethal factor, when you’re performing the unconscious risk assessment that’s an integral part of survival on the road.
There are two sorts of danger out there. There are the kinds that are imposed on you by third parties or physical factors; and there’s the other kind, the stuff that’s your fault. The former are much easier to deal with, because they’re constants that wise riders always keep in mind. White van man, school run battleships, drivers arguing on their mobile phones… the list goes on and on and on. It’s the same with the physical bits: diesel slicks, pot holes, manhole covers, you can even bung in horse shit and, one I encountered personally, mint sauce slicks if you like. The reality is you expect the unexpected and as long as you’re on the ball, you’re safe.
But what happens when you’re distracted? This brings me to the second danger, the Enemy Within. OK, so when the Tories coined the phrase they were referring to the miners, but what they were talking about was an enemy that could seriously fuck them up. Which, if you think what a little internal sabotage can achieve on a motorbike, is about the same thing. Of course unless you’re actually psychotic you’re unlikely to try to fuck yourself up, but it’s funny how things turn out. A moment’s distraction at the wrong time and you can suddenly find yourself in the world of special parking privileges, or even discover that your life insurance has matured.
Which brings me back to women. The battleaxe in the Mercedes had every right to look down her nose at me. Aside from the fact that merely riding a bike probably put me somewhere a few rungs beneath her contempt, I’d also shot straight across a give way line without even registering it. No, it wasn’t her who reminded me of the treacherous plot by womankind to get me, she was incidental. It was the redhead’s fault.
Actually that’s not fair either. She may have been aware of how beautiful she was (she’d have had to have been pretty daft to have missed it!); but, as she crossed the street between two grey blocks, she couldn’t have known that the sun, as it blazed through her hair would create a copper halo that seared my brain, scorching any thought of Roadcraft from my mind. If she hadn’t stepped into the shadows when she did, I’ve no doubt I’d have gained intimate personal experience of Benz’s legendary build quality.
How would I have explained it away to my friends and family (assuming I was lucky enough to retain the ability to communicate)? I decided that I’d have called it a glitch. Glitches cause all sorts of disasters. A dodgy O-ring turned the tenth Challenger mission into a dramatic fireworks display. A mechanic forgets to bolt your callipers back to your forks… oops! Or the bolts aren’t checked properly on an 80mph bend on a rail track… D’oh.
The trouble with these examples is that they’re all external. Someone else screws up and the person on the receiving end cops it. The situation I’m describing is something completely different. My situation wasn’t a glitch – “a sudden irregularity or malfunction” — but it was very nearly a GLITCH. A Gonad Led Intelligence Takeover & Consequential Horror.
I’ve never been sure about the idea that the average man thinks about sex every six seconds; I can’t see it personally, not consciously. However I do believe there’s a department somewhere in his brain that does nothing but. It’s like an all-male office, where Darren the lech sits at the window all day going: “Cor look at that! I wouldn’t mind getting its heels behind its ears… Check the tits on that Doris! I’d give it one… What about the arse on that? You could park a Goldwing up her Khyber…” It’s there all the time, a background buzz, annoying, but tolerated because when Darren yells “Worrr!!” in a certain tone, everyone drops whatever they’re doing and rushes to the window to press their noses against the glass.
And that’s how I think it works in our heads at a Numbskulls level. Darren is obviously a gonadotrophin and it’s his job to keep his eyes skinned for possible sperm banks. While you’re riding along he’s going, “Blonde left. Brunette right. Low top by the lights. Short skirt on the horizon.” And most of the time the rest of your functions stay on task and concentrate on the job in hand (i.e. tearing between two rows of traffic, skimming past mirrors, and weaving past wobblers on their mobiles). Then all of a sudden Darren goes “Worrr!!” and that’s it. In a fraction of a millisecond your brain is full of the boys from your bollocks. They wrench your eyes in the direction that Darren’s pointing, just in time for all the lads in the hard-pressed riding department to look up and see the white silk blouse billow once again, exposing a perfectly formed honeyed orb tipped by the most… And that’s about when you whack the Ikea package that’s sticking out the back window of a Cinquecento, high-side it and bounce towards the bull bars of an oncoming Vitara.
It’s obvious that if you’re not looking at the road, it’s pot luck what happens next. I’ve been there enough times, particularly in my earlier years, to know just how lucky I’ve been not to have met any excessively sharp or aggressively immovable objects in my various shunts and slides. On average, I’ve probably come off with little more than roadrash, the occasional ruined pair of best jeans and a bill for thirty or so quid for indicators and levers from a breaker’s.
For me, the greatest boon of working on the fleet at Mercury was that you didn’t even have to pay to get your bike fixed, which must have saved me a fortune in my first summer as a courier. As an in-town rider, I rode from the West End to the City and back again, all day every day. And yes I got distracted, I admit it, constantly, beautifully and often memorably, but also rather too regularly, painfully. One momentous morning early in June 1979, I managed to dump my company bike twice within the space of a couple of hundred yards and little more than five minutes – and both spills were classic GLITCHes.
The first was around 9:45am; and what was most impressive about that one was that I was stationary when it happened. I was on the sunny side of Harley Street, about twenty yards from the lights at Cavendish Square, waiting to pick up a regular ten o’clock booking at a clinic opposite. It was a glorious morning. My GT250 was on the centre-stand, and I was reclined across it in a t-shirt, with my shoulders on the topbox and my feet resting on the clocks inside the handlebar fairing. I was half-reading a copy of Bike, but mainly checking out the steady stream of lightly dressed women. I’d arranged the right mirror to make sure I didn’t miss anyone behind me; and sure enough a blonde and a redhead, both around 18 or 19, appeared in the reflected distance. They were a picture of summer beauty; skimpily dressed, they leant on each other as they walked arm in arm, chatting and laughing. I waited until I thought they were right alongside and turned casually to show them my teeth. Sadly they weren’t quite as close as I’d thought and as I turned to check my blindspot the bike toppled. I tried to extricate my boots from the fairing without success, so I went down with my ship and we tumbled in a heap at their feet. They laughed some more as they skipped round me and the redhead gave me a little finger wiggling wave as they crossed the road to walk through the gardens. So not a total loss then.
I’d no sooner sorted the bike out and settled down for another ten minutes bask, when yet another vision of loveliness – wearing a calf length dress of fine white Indian cheesecloth – drifted across the lights and disappeared past the corner heading west along Wigmore Street. At the same moment the lights ahead of me turned green and it occurred to Darren and the bollock boys (who more or less had the run of things while I was standing by) that if I tore round the block real quick, I could get another look at her with the sun behind her. I kicked the Suzuki into life, rocked it off the stand and the rear wheel hit the road spinning. I sped around the square, along Henrietta Place, scraped my pannier into Wimpole Street, straightening momentarily before throwing it over again as I screamed into Wigmore Street on a very late amber. And there she was, still ten yards from the junction.
You’ve got to give it to Daz and the boys, they were spot on. Viewed from the West, backlit by the stark morning sunlight, she was a mindblowing naked silhouette. There wasn’t a single brain cell who didn’t have his nose pressed against my optical nerve, which, as it turned out, meant there was no bugger riding the bike and accounts for why it just kept on leaning until it broke away and scraped across the road to clatter into the gutter. I picked myself up and my bare right arm had a long black and red smear from the elbow to the wrist, while the mess on the palms of my hands dissuaded me from trying to lead the excited onlookers in a spontaneous round of applause for what was, when all’s said and done, a pretty spectacular bit of street entertainment.
The vision stopped alongside me and although she was clearly oblivious to any culpability on her part, she looked terribly concerned. She was another Duracell (yeah, of course I know there’s a pattern) sporting a short carrot-coloured crop. When she opened her full-lipped mouth to speak I thought, “What the hell if my limbs smart and I’ve got yet another new pair of Levis with holes in the knee, I could be on a result here.” But before she could speak, two lovely old dears swung to my rescue offering me tissues, sympathy, and sage words of advice against dashing around on motorbikes. The vision, seeing I was already well cared for, wrinkled her nose and twinkled her green eyes at me, before turning away and walking out of my life, leaving me with the girls explaining that they were up from Guildford for a recital at the Wigmore Hall. I firmly, but somewhat belatedly bolted the barn door, by putting my jacket and gloves on top of my wounds, made my apologies to the Surrey W.I. and shot off for the ten o’clock pick up.
These were just a couple of situations out of a thousand. Others included various Marilyn Monroe scenes above underground vents; stocking tops crossing Cheapside; even topless sunbathers in the central reservation on Park Lane! And if I was moving when they happened, my survival was likely to involve an infinitely higher ratio of luck to judgment than would normally be desirable.
I realise that, while some of you will share my fatal attraction, there’ll be others who simply don’t relate to any of this. If it’s just a question of gender or sexual orientation, you can substitute diaphanous dresses for overfilled cycle shorts, bare-arsed chaps in chaps, or anything else that rings your bell. For a few of you it may be Ferrari Dinos, speckled throat-warblers or rare Routemaster buses, but most of us with a pulse have an Achilles heel.
So how do you avoid, or at least lower the risk factors in these situations? I’m afraid I can only talk authoritatively about GLITCHes from a male perspective and the best advice I can offer is to get old! Your hormones eventually get too knackered to rush to your brain in the sort of numbers they used to, so there’s a better chance of maintaining at least one eye on the road. But for someone twenty-two, who’s struggling to make twenty-three, I realise that’s not a lot of help. So for the younger audience I’d point you to the advice given to Ted in Something About Mary: “Never go on a date with a loaded gun!” OK, you’re not going out on a date, but the principle’s the same and you’ve got to do something to stop them swarming across your brain and fucking you up (and don’t forget Ted ended up with Cameron Diaz!).
If you’re reading this in sunshine beware! You know how dangerous it’s going to be out there: simply acres and acres of lightly-draped flesh, in all its wonderful variety. So give yourself an edge. Pop into a posh office block now, the kind where they have nice accessible marble and gold bogs, and empty that gun. Regular pre-emptive strikes against the enemy within may be the best shot you’ve got at surviving until the comparative safety of the ice and snow of yet another Winter.
Be extra careful out there when the sun shines
PS: If anyone has been offended by this piece, please allow me to apologise – I set out to write a serious article on the importance of good communication with your controller. Unfortunately Darren decided that was a load of old bollocks and called the boys up for support; who then ran around my brain chanting “We want crumpet!” until I caved in – sorry.