5. Precious Children

TRD issue 39 – November 2000

It was November 2000 when George W Bush, aided and abetted by his brother Jeb – the governor of Florida – and Fox News, pulled off the great US presidential election rip-off that landed him in the White House and the ordinary American people in the middle of the biggest shit-storm they’d ever seen – and eight years down the line, the series of grim consequences and repercussions they’ve been suffering, have continued to mount on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Meanwhile back in the UK, I wrote Precious Children in response to an article in issue 37 by regular TRD contributor “Wulf”, whose experiences in Kuala Lumpa left him questioning the wisdom of carrying children on motorcycles. He finished his piece with the following: –

“I’m not saying what you should do. I’m only saying that maybe we should all take some time to think calmly and clearly exactly who we are doing it for in the first place. It’s raw risk on a third-world scale – with a payoff that no amount of compensation or being faultless will touch if the coin lands face-down. Are you ready for that? I found myself left with one last unpleasant question: did I want to give my child the gift of biking or my biking the gift of my child?

Think about it next time you take your child out on the road with you.”

In September, Wulf was in “dad” mode. As a father, the sights he’d seen in Malaysia forced him to seriously reconsider the wisdom of carrying his cubs on his motorcycle. In particular, seeing a man precariously balancing the life of a sleeping baby on the petrol tank of his moped forced him to confront the naked peril you expose your child to when you allow (or worse still, encourage) it to ride on your pillion. Not only did he question the “raw risk on a third world scale”, but he also had to contend with the worrying possibility that he could end up giving his biking the gift of his child. However, having flagged a serious quandary he didn’t offer much by way of answers, guidance or insight before signing off with the suggestion that the reader “think about it”.

Personally I didn’t need to give it a great deal of thought; due to the age of my children it was ground I’d covered long ago. My 9, 15 and 17 year-olds have all been out on the road on my various bikes and my 4 year-old is just waiting until I’m sure he’s got both the height and the savvy to keep his feet firmly placed on the pegs before be joins them; until then he’s had the occasional trip up and down the private cul-de-sac that adjoins our road, since he was three. But does that make me a terrible dad? Does it mean that I don’t really think or care enough? That I’m being cavalier with my children’s lives?

Should parents allow their children to be exposed to the potentially horrific dangers of biking? It’s an important question; because if not, then surely you have to take it to its logical conclusion and attempt to ban them from all the hazards you’ve encountered, from drugs to unprotected sex, even though you got to make your own choices and survived. It’s a dilemma which has troubled parents for generations; and one which will almost certainly continue to cause arguments and divisions, way beyond a point in the future when allowing your child to take any risk will constitute a criminal offence.

I arrived at the basis of my own decision some years ago, so when I read what the big bad one had to say, I thought I’d better go back over the ground with a couple of other biking parents. With nine saucepans between us, Paul (3), Dave (2) and me (4), would seem to constitute a pretty reasonable cross-section. We all have at least one child of each sex and each of them (with the exception of my youngest) has, aside from riding pillion, ridden motocross bikes themselves.

I took the photo above in August ‘97 at Tommy’s farm in Wales. It shows Paul and Dave with just about the entire fruit of our loins mounted on bikes like lambs prepared for the slaughter. Are we all such bad parents? A week or so ago, when we had what is nowadays a rare night where we were all together, I decided I’d check their views before I wrote this. I thought it might be useful to sound out their reasoning, as we’d all arrived at our own conclusions separately and without any consultation. But I got the kind of responses I should have known to expect after twenty odd years. Paul made some quip about kids having as much right to die having fun as we have; while Dave shrugged, tipped his head to one side and inquired why I was asking him stupid questions that it would take us hours to disappear up our arses about, when all three of us already knew the answer. However, both of them, in their own sweet way, and without resorting to any protracted ethical or moral arguments, reminded me that I had thought it through and that, given my views on life – and death – had arrived at the only possible conclusion.

In the small hours after my third child was born, I arrived home elated, plonked myself in front of the TV and a programme came on about R.D. Laing: pre-eminent psychologist, occasional acid head, 60s liberal thinker and all round very interesting fella. At one point his face filled the screen and he smiled at me wryly before stating in an alcohol-slurred voice that: “Life is a sexually transmitted disease, with a 100% mortality rate”. Bang! Have another toke and ponder that one! Which I did. A couple of miles away in King’s College Hospital, Nick, who was hours old, was sleeping while his mother lay awake, watching him in wonder. Meanwhile I was in Brixton with a pissed jock telling me my boy’s meter was already running. The best bit was that I couldn’t argue with a word he said. Obviously his choice of words was designed to cut through all the bullshit and hearts and flowers, to remind the viewer of the only absolute certainty in life. He wasn’t being nasty. He was simply saying not to waste your life worrying about dying, because it’s the one thing you can rely on so you may as well get on with living. Roddy Frame, a fellow Scot, put it a lot more gently when he said: “Life’s a one-take movie…” but the principle’s the same.

Of course I’m aware my kids are going to die, but I’m not banking on seeing it. With the sort of medical advances they’ll witness, unless anything should happen to precipitate the process they might even double the ‘three score years and ten’ the bible offers as a standard. Between now and then though, there are a lot of things that could happen; so if you’re really serious about longevity, you simply can’t afford to take risks. But where do you draw the line?

For some people, getting out of bed is too risky. You only have to look at Howard Hughes to see the world turned upside down. One of the richest men on the planet and pretty damn clever with it, he’d had a whole heap of fun in his youth. So what did he do in the end? Did he have a Scrooge-like moment of revelation and give his enormous wealth to the needy of the world? Did he turn into a sad old up-market prototype for pathetic rakes like Peter Stringfellow and wheel through an ever-younger line up of lovelies? Did he bollocks! What he did was lock himself away and walk around in pyjamas with tissue boxes on his feet, while he obsessed about germs and all the other things just queuing up to get him. Obviously he’d lost the plot, but the dangers were clearly all too real for him and his fear of them consumed his life.

So how do you assess a risk objectively? The truth is you can’t, particularly if it involves your child. Objectivity requires the kind of distance and detachment you get from insurance companies and the legal system, not parents. The former work out the odds and the latter tell you what you can and cannot do; but as they’ve both become nasty scabs as a result of the drippy-dick relationship with the good ol’ US of A that Wulf alluded to, it would hardly seem appropriate to trust them to decide what’s best for your own flesh and blood.

So in the end it all comes back to you. You can ask yourself Daily Mail questions like: Which would do your child most harm, dying as a result of a bike accident, or never going on one in the first place? You don’t need to go all the way to Kuala Lumpur to find the answer. But the choice isn’t that stark. For the question to mean anything it needs to examine all the possible outcomes. You’d also need to weigh the likelihood of a perfect trip that will sparkle in your child’s memory for the rest of its life, against keeping it in a windowless nuclear bunker to protect it from all evils. Any risk assessment needs to take a holistic view of the entire spectrum. At one end lies an awful death; but at the other lies the greater tragedy of an awful life.

The question the lupine one was really asking was, are you prepared for the kind of worst-case scenario that a bike is more than able to provide – the gruesome death of your child. But before you ask that question, you have to ask a more fundamental one: Are you prepared for the death of your child? I think the answer, for any parent who hasn’t actually been forced to confront it, has to be ‘No’. Many worry about it, some fixate on it, but I don’t believe any parent who hasn’t had to go there could possibly begin to imagine how it would feel, much less want to.

I consider myself quite staunch when it comes to looking reality straight in the eye, but I have never in my worst nightmare even attempted to torture my mind with having to deal with that particular reality. Why should I? I’ve spent the last seventeen years doing the best I know how to make sure I never have to. I replace batteries in smoke detectors, check their seat belts are done up properly, make sure they eat their veg and all the other sensible stuff. Between times, I warn them what’s most likely to kill or seriously fuck them up.

In a nutshell, I do what I can, but there’s danger everywhere, even in the most innocent or mundane situation. If Wulf’s metaphorical coin does its fatal flip, it doesn’t matter where your child is, your life will never be the same.

My children have all had great experiences on bikes, without anything remotely resembling serious danger so much as waving to us as we went past. Of course that doesn’t mean it will always be the case, but the odds don’t increase with each journey; they’re always about the same or go down as you get older and wiser. Fate isn’t a fifty-fifty toss of a coin, it’s a lottery; and millions of people fail to come up on the lottery every single week.

I wouldn’t dare to tell anybody else what to do with their babies, because I can only truly be responsible for mine. But if I’d had any nagging doubts they’d have evaporated on Nick’s eighth birthday, a couple of Aprils ago. My SRX had been off the road for six months and as I’d finished it just the day before, I’d agreed that we’d go to school on it as a birthday treat. As we pulled up by the gate with a roar, half his schoolmates looked up from the playground below; and as he removed his helmet and waved to them, even his ears were glowing. I watched him walk proudly down the stairs carrying his lid into a small crowd and as I rode off, I could still hear his voice buzzing with excitement and pride as he spoke to his bredren: “Yeah, it’s my dad’s. He’s just rebuilt it. I used to go on it all the time. I’ve even ridden an 80cc motocrosser myself when I was only six…”

Your duty to your children extends beyond merely keeping them safe. Of course you want them to outlive you; but never forget just how important you are to them. You’re meant to stick around to help them with the tricky bits, to teach them how to enjoy themselves safely by example and to help provide them with the memorable bits until they’re old enough and independent enough to create their own. It’s no good copping out of the whole worry of parenthood by forgetting just how fragile your own life is.

A few years ago, there was a little girl on the back of Total fuel tankers, who always made me think of my Sam. So when she prayed “Please drive carefully daddy”, I’d consciously turn the wick up a little in my brain.

If you can’t carry your child around with you at all times to remind you how enormously precious your life is to them perhaps you need to discard all your leathers, boots and body armour and stick to riding in trainers, a jock strap and an open face — that’ll help you keep your child in focus. Never forget: you’re all daddies, mummies, sons or daughters;

So whatsay you be careful out there?

Carin’ Sharin’

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