TRD issue 43 – March 2001
The most interesting story in March 2001 was the news of the recovery of Donald Campbell’s boat Bluebird from the bottom of Coniston Water in Cumbria. It had been laying there ever since January 1967 when Campbell – the only person ever to have held both the land and water speed records at the same time – had been attempting to break his own 276mph water speed record when the vessel went out of control somersaulting repeatedly before crashing and sinking.
OK, this month it’s Country & Western philosophy: “Life is like a pubic hair on the side of a toilet bowl… Sooner or later you get pissed off.”
Well for the first 26 years of my life I happily hung on to the clack on the side (metaphorically speaking); but by 1981 – the Spring of my Discontent – I was well and truly sluiced off. I realise for a number of you that was before you were born; but, and I realise this may come as a shock to a few of you, sex ’n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll aren’t new things either. The songs may have changed, but the way I see it, picking up in E.15 at the arse end of a wet Friday in November, and riding to Aylesbury on a GS425 that is as soaked through and knackered out as you are, wasn’t a hoot then and it’s a very special sort of person who considers it their idea of fun now.
In the greater scheme of things the date’s irrelevant, but those of us who were unfortunate enough to have been there will remember that the year kicked off rather ominously with John Lennon at number one, posthumously, with Imagine. It wasn’t a bad song actually. When it was first released it had possessed an optimistic, trippy kind of resonance; but in January 1981, just a couple of months after his untimely death, it had become an ironic epitaph. What was the line? “… And the world could live as one.” Yeah right, John.
The rest of the stuff that spewed from my radio hardly raised my spirits either. Imagine was depressing due to circumstance rather than musical content, whereas the shit that followed was dire. Jealous Guy, Roxy Music’s tribute to Lennon was the comparatively good bit, lurking as it did between Joe Dolce’s classic ditty, Shaddup You Face, and Shakin’ Stevens’ break into the BIG time, This Ole House (although in reality, Brian Ferry was kinda like the crappy plastic cheese that came between slices of stale, duffel bag-flavoured Wonderloaf in school sarnies: interesting – but only by default). And if that lot weren’t depressing enough, Bucks Fizz, the archetypical bubbly Euro Muppets, were lurking in the wings, twitching impatiently while they waited for Ol’ Shakey to bugger off so Making Your Mind Up could replace his dodgy drum as the most played dross polluting the nation’s airwaves.
It’s not like radio music was the only crap in my life. Doom and gloom were seeping in on all fronts. The political situation certainly didn’t help. For two whole years Thatcher had been strutting her stuff, flexing the collective party muscle, and building the foundations of the society we enjoy today. At the time I’d considered her, along with the aforementioned chart heroes, a passing aberration – more a fly in the ointment than a serious thorn in the collective side. If I’d suspected then how long Shakey and Bucks Fizz would have hung around, or that the Tories would have been sleazing away for another sixteen years, I’d probably have topped myself there and then.
Against this background of general dross, I had to go to work and suffer controllers, pig-ignorant punters, police, jobsworths, unexpected returns, ignored tax returns, diesel slicks, horseshit slicks, and all the other shit that becomes such a drag when your dream job becomes a chore. For Chrissake look how the rich and famous pop to the Priory to deal with the stress of their “jobs” – what chance dispatching? If you started in the business because you love bikes, what do you do when it all turns sour? By March ‘81 my life seemed to be freefalling down the porcelain…
6.45pm in the Deep South (we’re talking Trotter rather than Tennessee Williams territory) and once again I lurched wearily onto the Peckham estate I rather euphemistically called home. I locked my bike, cursed it under my breath and hauled my various bits and pieces, along with my lethargic arse, up six flights of foul-smelling stairs; too knackered to even check the graffiti for news.
I fumbled into the flat, and dumped my junk in the hallway before having a rather optimistic shufti in the fridge. I didn’t need to replace the blown light bulb in the kitchen to see it was Mother Hubbard time, so I shuffled into the living room, switched on the TV, pitched my jacket and lid into the corner and slumped onto the sofa.
After about ten minutes I’d regained just enough strength to wrestle my waterproofs to my shins, before collapsing back into the lumpy cushions. To remove my over-trousers altogether I’d have to take my wellies off and just thinking about that made my head throb. I’d get around to that later (probably when I came to with rigor mortis at around 3.30am if recent experience was any indicator). I rolled myself a fat one and sagged still further into the couch as I lit it; then moaned wearily until even that was too much effort, so I slipped into a silent, to all intents and purposes catatonic state, where my eyes stared blankly at a point just a few inches beyond the snowy picture on the TV. The scene was getting repetitive.
When I’d started out dispatch riding back in November ‘78, I’d just turned twenty-four and I loved bikes. I couldn’t believe anyone would give me a bike then pay me to thrash it all day. I had a company bike, money in my pocket, and within a few months I was sharing a flat with two other couriers (plus some of the most interesting degenerates in London, on a good night – and there were loads of top nights). But that was two and a half years, and more significantly, three winters earlier. Lying comatose on a lumpy couch with the box droning inanely in the corner, those days seemed as far away as the everlasting beach holidays I’d enjoyed as a seven-year-old. Things had definitely deteriorated somewhat and I was considerably less than full of the joys of spring.
Which was sad really; especially considering that elsewhere life rolled on pretty much as it always had. The spectre of winter had faded away and everywhere spring was springing. As they’ve done for generations, young men’s testosterone-laden fancies turned once again to mating and motorcycles (and not necessarily in that order). In cities, towns, villages and hamlets across the nation, from streets, alleys, garages, kitchens and bedrooms, the pungent aromas of WD40, petrol and Castrol R were exuding slowly into the atmosphere; while the ring of tools on metal, punctuated by the occasional dull scrape of knuckles on the same, could be heard all over, combined with raucous laughter, curses (of both pain and frustration) and outrageous (if rarely more than partially true) riding stories. Bikers around the country, if not the entire Northern hemisphere, were gearing up for the good bit. The fun bit. The sunny bit!
But in a rapidly darkening room in SE15 there was no such optimism. I was fed up, pissed off, and thoroughly depressed. Sure spring had sprung, but it had come way waaay too late for me. Long before the bitter January weather had locked in, biking had ceased to be a source of pleasure. Since early autumn, every evening and from Friday night till Monday morning, my bike had stayed where it stopped. If I needed to go somewhere I’d scrounge a lift in a car, catch a bus, a train or a mini-cab – I’d even walk – anything rather than get back on the bike in my own time. The horrible truth was, I loathed riding it.
Lying there wallowing in my woes, my attention was slowly but inexorably drawn to the picture on the TV. Top Of The Pops had come on and there behind the snowstorm were Bucks Fizz, bouncing around and flashing their teeth like demented rabbits on wizz. I scrambled all round me purposefully, but couldn’t find anything worth chucking at the TV (which was probably a good thing, as we were way behind on the rental so there was no way we’d have got yet another set out of D.E.R.). In desperation I rolled off the sofa and began crawling towards the door.
I felt as if I was towing a caravan with flat tyres. I wondered if perhaps my problems might have been entirely physiological – like anaemia or something. I dug in, redoubled my effort, and was rewarded with a searing pain in the thigh as the sofa leg gave up its grip on the buckle of my braces and – rather abruptly – allowed them to join me in my pathetic attempt to escape from the TV. I almost broke down and wept, but what was the point? Why bother? What was one more vicious torment in a life turned sour?
Frazzled, I dragged myself to the bog and climbed on; as I did it struck me that I could give up the courier game and earn a living marketing Bucks Fizz as a laxative to all the haemorrhoidal DRs. I even managed a little grimace on the strength of the idea. Bolstered by the moment of levity, I allowed myself another grin as I checked out the photos blu-tacked to the walls. In one there’s a group of adrenalin-glazed bikers on a fag break in the foreground, while over their shoulders you can just make out miles of twisting mountain road. In another Woffy fills the frame wearing nothing but a chunky beer glass over his tackle and a dopey “I’m out of my skull” smile. There were various wheelies and girls on bikes, but mostly they were snaps from Le Mans, the Bol d’Or, Porthcawl, Canvey Island, and a variety of other exotic locations; and in every one of them the people were beaming. “Happier days!” I sighed wistfully.
The curling pictures dropped out of focus, as my suffocating purple mantle slowly cascaded back down, swathing me in doom, gloom, and despondency. Yeah, happy days indeed. Well the song was wrong, they weren’t here to stay. They fucked off long ago and left me hiding in a crapper. I was sitting in a five foot by four foot purgatory, getting a ring around my arse, while I wondered absently if the bog chain would take my weight. I decided it probably could, but I also figured that by the time it had lowered to the flushing position, I’d just be a poor sad bastard, standing on the floor in a chain mail necktie. Aaaaaaaaaaargh! There was no escape. I sat there with my palms squashing my eyes shut and my elbows making red marks on my thighs. TOTP was an annoying buzz in the background taunting and teasing me; a constant reminder just in case I’d missed the point, that life was in fact shit.
My low-spirited lassitude was rudely disturbed by a thunderous roar that seemed to reverberate right through me. I shuddered to think what sort of beast would make such an apocalyptic sound and I was still wrestling with that grizzly little puzzle when a sharp rap on the front door brought fresh trepidation. Curling into a foetal ball I considered trying to escape down the bog, but I decided I wouldn’t be able to get round the bend (which, given my prevailing state of mind, struck me as pretty ironic), although I reckoned that at a pinch, I could probably climb in and pull the lid down.
The second, louder series of impacts rattled the window just eighteen inches behind my head. I probably only jumped a couple of feet; it seemed more, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t bang my head on the ceiling. I hissed at my heart and lungs desperately, begging them to shut up and not give me away, but they were having none of it. In fact sensing my rising hysteria they lost it altogether and began running around my chest and crashing into each other in their panic.
“Come on Dave, open the door!” My paralysing paranoia disappeared as I recognised a familiar voice, only to be replaced by an equally debilitating embarrassment.
“Open up Gurwig! What are you doing, hiding in the bog!?” He thumped the window again.
“Dillon?” I played for time while I attempted to regain my composure, wipe my arse, and get dressed.
“No, the Chipping Sodbury chapter of the Hells Angels! Who the fuck do you think it is? Are you going to let me in or what?”
I opened the door rubbing my head. I’d just cracked it on the toilet wall when my waterproofs took advantage of my confusion and tripped me sneakily from behind.
“About time… What were you doing, flushing your stash down the bog?” He brushed past me and strolled into the living room.
“Why are you sitting in the dark? And what’s this crap?” He snapped on the lamp, switched off Top of the Pops, and put a Squeeze tape on, before turning to survey me with a mixture of amusement and disgust as I sprawled pathetically on the couch.
“Oh for Chrissakes, you’re not stumbling around with your Helly’s round your ankles again Gurwig? After all the times you’ve been tripped over or whacked with the elastic! You’re losing it. Really you’re cracking up, you need to get a grip.”
(As I listened to Chris Difford barking out Cool For Cats a note of real desperation crept into my thinking: perhaps he was right! Why hadn’t it occurred to me to turn the telly off and put a tape on?)
“ARE YOU DEAF?” Dillon rapped me on the head like a teacher trying to get the attention of a lovesick teenager.
He took an exasperated breath before repeating slowly: ‘DO… YOU… WANT… TO… SEE… MY… LATEST?’”
“Oh er yeah, right. Roger Rog… Erm, lead on MacDuff!” He gave me a very weird sideways glance before striding out to the front door, leaving me desperately trying to get it together as I waddled along in his wake. For almost an hour before his arrival I’d been wrapping myself in a six-skin blanket of neurosis and paranoia; consequently with his sudden matter-of-fact arrival, I was having considerable trouble finding an outcrop of reality to bung an anchor on.
He stood on the balcony looking into the courtyard. Turning back towards me he waved me along good-naturedly, as I shuffled pathetically down the hall. His expression showed pity and humour in equal parts and he put his arm around my shoulder to guide my last few faltering steps. Sweeping his arm in a grand gesture he indicated the courtyard three floors below: “Behold!”
I ground my eyes with my knuckles, before opening them squinting. There among the rusting heaps on bricks, the primer-ed Datsuns and Toyotas, and the tarted-up Escorts, was an unadulterated vision of loveliness in silver and blue. She was magnificent. Long, lithe, and unbelievably sensual. Even in the fading light and the pathetic glimmer of the few lamps that weren’t smashed, there was no mistaking her incredible beauty, elegance, and class.
“You coming down?” He said smiling beatifically.
“Yeah, just let me get these off!”
You’d have thought Debbie Harry had walked onto the landing and told me to drop my kit the way I plonked to the chilly floor and tore off my Helly’s and wellies. I rushed off in my socks and was as blissfully unaware of the coldness of the floor as I was of the piss stains in the stairwell. As I rounded the second then the first landings, I quickly checked that the apparition hadn’t spirited herself away and as I strode across to the spot where Dillon stood glowing proudly, even the crunching gravel and dog shit failed to register.
My face had the slightly vacant, but peaceful and contented expression you tend to find on born again Christians. I had been to the very edge of the abyss of existential angst and had a good long shufti down the hole. But now I was saved. I realised that there was the possibility of motorcycling life after dispatch riding!
I sat on Dillon’s Ducati 900SS and an overwhelming feeling of serenity eased through me. As I placed my shoeless feet onto the cold knurled metal of the rearsets and stretched across to caress the clip-ons, the bar-end mirror filled with crimson and indigo as the sun slipped demurely behind the North Peckham Estate. I sucked in the balmy spring air and, rather than cause Ray any further distress, sang in my head:
“Happy days are here again,
Da de-da de da da da
Da de-da de da da da
Happy days are here agaaiin!!”
Be careful out there