1. International Rescue

TRD issue 30 – February 2000

The top news story when I sent my first contribution to the Digest in February ’00, was the government’s latest attempt to gag ex-spy David Shayler, after he ‘blew the whistle’ on shady MI5 operations. He provided the Mail on Sunday with “damning details” of the spooks’ operations, the most serious of which being the accusation that the government kept secret files on politicians who had by then become cabinet ministers.

Shayler had been in “political exile” in France ever since the revelations were first published in August 1997. Having been unsuccessful in their 1998 attempt to extradite him, the government took out a civil writ accusing him of breaches of confidence and contract and of breaking copyright laws.

Personally I could never understand the Law Lords’ refusal to accept his defence that he was acting in the public interest. What sort of logic considers it wrong to inform the population that a dodgy government department has been spying on their democratically elected politicians?

At first glance you’d be forgiven for wondering what the hell this story – heartwarming as it may be – is doing in The Riders Digest. Any association with the despatch business is at best tangential and it’s not even directly about bikes. But it is about bikers.

I’ve ridden bikes since I bought my first one – a secondhand Suzuki TS90 – in 1975. Across the quarter century betwixt then and now there have been many magic times, including my first bout in the courier business (starting at Mercury in ‘78) and, from ‘81 to ‘83, owning and enjoying a 1979 black & gold Ducati 900SS.  However high points aside, the one constant that’s made me happy – and proud – to be a biker, is the feeling of comradeship.

I’m sure a lot of people reading this are about to skip to the next article (or advert even), convinced I’m simply a fogey on a nostalgia trip. That I need to get real. There may or may not have been some sort of brotherhood way back in some imagined golden age, but this is Y2K. We’ve had the Gimme Eighties and the Nasty Nineties and nobody really gives a toss anymore. Given the amount of peace, love and harmony around in Year Zero, it might just as well be the Khmer Rouge running things!

I realise we live in a meaner, harsher world, but the Sixties weren’t all Californian sunshine and light. Besides all the usual nastiness and petty rivalries that continue to spark violence among bikers today, back then you had two tribes who believed that the difference between their wheel sizes, riding position and dress sense justified them beating the shit out of each other. Which they did regularly – with boots, bottles and bike chains – whenever they met by chance or by special appointment over Bank Holidays. Even when you put Mods & Rockers aside, bikes (and parts of them) have always been stolen; road rage has always existed (except in those days, car starter handles were more common weapons than krooklocks); and there have always been pathetic wankers on bikes who are worse than car drivers for intentionally blocking your progress through traffic.

But so what if the world is an infinitely more wicked and less caring place, it’s all relative. As a biker you are still more likely to be on the receiving end of a random act of friendliness, kindness or support from a brother or sister of the road, than any car driver, pedestrian, or public transport traveller. If you’ve broken down or need a little help and other motorcyclists are aware of the situation, you will still find people stopping to offer assistance. And in moments of real despair there’s no greater sight than a friendly biker pulling up to check if they can help.

The most lonesome I’ve ever felt was in the middle of the day, sitting in a gutter alongside my crumpled bike in the Royal docks. In 1976 the area was a wasteland and I squatted there in a short sleeved t-shirt, oozing claret from a large hole in my left elbow for over fifteen minutes.  One or two cars a minute slowed down to manouver around the bike and have a quick shufty, but not a single one stopped. Just as I was begining to slide into despondency, I heard the rasp of a two stroke coming fast, the first bike since I dumped it. My first instinct was to warn the rider of the diesel slick I’d discovered, but he saw me as he came round the first bend and braked immediately. He jumped off his RD200, picked up my bike and put it on the pavement before turning to me and saying, “Fuck me, that’s gotta smart!”  He bunged me on the back of his bike and dropped me down the road at the “Seaman’s Hospital”, before zipping off saying, “Gotta rush, I was already late back from lunch… Good luck!” And he was gone in a puff of blue smoke.

Working on the same principle, the last weekend in January, four crusty bikers who’ve all seen the back of forty climbed into Thunderbird 2 (an aging, but spacious green Montego turbo-diesel estate, with an ever so slightly leaky head) and set off to France for a bit of international rescue. The only difference was that on this occasion we weren’t heading out to pick up a CX500 with a knackered cam chain, or a mangled Le Mans with matching rider – but we were on a mission to rescue a biker in despair.

For years Ash ran an adventure playground in Thamesmead and was at the same time a well known figure on the southeast London bike scene. About seven years ago, having had it with the rat race, he and his lady, Jane, sold their flat in Deptford and bought a small farm in Normandy. So nowadays Ash and Jane are doing the ‘Good Life’ bit and he spends more time on a horse than a bike – but he’s still a biker at heart. It’s fortunate then that their farm near Vire is an ideal staging post en route from London to Le Mans. Over the years, dozens of after-work travellers have ridden to Ash & Jane’s farm and crashed out, knowing they’d wake refreshed in the morning and enjoy a top breakfast before setting off on the relatively short blast to the circuit.

So in recognition of years of sterling service to international biking, when the word went out that the folks at La Fosse (literally “the ditch”) were in trouble we scrambled into action. OK, so it took a month to get it together, but the Tracy brothers don’t have day jobs or kids – and they’ve also got swimming pools that slide open and clever hydraulic systems that whoosh them straight into their seats!

We didn’t choose the pot-bellied rescue craft because we couldn’t deal with the prospect of a cold ride; if all Ash needed was some biking friends to pat him on the back and mellow him out, we’d have zipped over on our bikes (although to be honest the nippy ten degrees below that was registering when we arrived at 4am on Friday morning isn’t really my idea of a fun-filled bike ride), but it wasn’t simply the reassurance of seeing friendly faces that was needed. What was required was chain saws and muscle.

As you may or may not be aware France received an extra special Xmas pressie last year. In the wee small hours of December 25th, a storm swept through the country that made the one we had here in ‘87 seem like we’d left our trees out in a nasty draught. Now I’m sure there are quite a few people out there who think it’s a good job, that it’s no more than the beef-banning snail-munchers deserve; but, besides being just a tad xenophobic, it also ignores the fact that Ash is a sarf London boy! And to hear how two days after his 40th birthday, he lost one-and-a-half barns and around 30 trees would melt even a controller’s heart.

Walking around the farm seeing little aside from destruction and debris brought to mind the courier parties we’d enjoyed in Peckham twenty years earlier – only Ash didn’t even get to have any fun messing his farm up. But it reminded me how in the past enough people with black bags – even people with terminal hangovers – can make a hell of a dent in the most daunting of shit heaps. So in spite of the crisp weather we were soon stripped to lumberjack shirts (suspendies and a bra… oops!) and chopping fallen trees in a manner that would have done Tobe Hooper proud.

In the two-and-a-half days we had to work, we were able to clear little more than a field and a bit, but like any overwhelming task, it’s the getting started that’s the hard part. By the time we said our farewells on Sunday we’d given Ash and Jane a good head start, and more significantly we’d reminded them that if you’re a biker you’re never completely alone.

Empathy may not be a word that’s overused in the rufty tufty world of motorcycles, but if you’ve been riding a bike for any period of time you can’t help knowing how that other person feels and what you gonna do, drive past? Or am I just an anachronistic idealist? Is it really just a few aging riders who still believe in a ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you’ school of biking? If you’ve never thought to do it before, next time you see a rider with a problem, check it out, you never know what simple thing could make all the difference. It feels brilliant to be rescued, but not half as good as the glow you get when you ride away knowing that just for a moment there, you were the milkman of human kindness.

Be careful out there

Carin’ Sharin’ Dave

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