TRD issue 55 – March 2002
A 43-year-old woman identified only as Miss B, who was paralysed from the neck down after she suffered a burst blood vessel a year earlier, applied to the court for the legal right to demand that the (unnamed) hospital where she was being cared for, should turn off the ventilator she required to keep her alive. In a decision that had pro-lifers protesting vigorously at the message it sent out, Judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss granted Miss B’s wishes. Meanwhile the Queen Mum required no such legal wrangles to shrug her coil off, dying peacefully in her sleep at the age of 101.
Roger came up with the title for last month’s piece about dogs licking their R1s and I’ve gotta say, having re-read it, I thought “a bit of bollocks” was just about spot on. Even I found myself wondering what it was I’d been trying to say. I started off describing my attempts to apply the Taoist ‘Way’ to my daily life; and ended up getting into childish and “not very Zen” situations with mega bikes. Besides pointing out that it was the philosophical equivalent of mixing my metaphors, any serious student of Taoism or Buddhism would also gently underline that every time I allow myself to be embroiled in such pointless competitions, I’m simply illustrating that I’ve completely missed the point.
However, in my experience, the great thing about devotees of Eastern religions/philosophies, is that they are unlikely to write smug sarcastic letters to ‘In The Saddle’ saying: “Oi, Gurman No! You old tosser, you’ve completely missed the point!” Anyway, the whole point is that I haven’t missed the point. I know how I’d like to behave, I just haven’t quite got the hang of always managing to apply it in practice. It’s like smoking cigarettes: I know how bad they are for my health; that they make me stink; that they’re ridiculously expensive and I should just quit. So why am I still smoking? In the same way, I’m aware that I should simply move aside and leave the more aggressive rider to explore his own ‘Way’; the trouble is, if my goal is personal perfection, I know that I’m still deep in my own half.
I don’t claim to be the greatest thing ever to hit traffic-congested tarmac either; although reading back, I couldn’t help thinking that may have been precisely the notion I created. I had visions of young shit-hot gunslingers who’d read my article and were now spending hours simply criss-crossing the route I described, in the hope of finding me and making me eat shit and exhaust fumes on home turf. Worst of all, I knew that if and when it happened, the hotshot was certain to wheelie off afterwards, like a modern day motorcycling equivalent of Clint spinning his Colt round his trigger finger, before holstering it and spitting tobacco juice on my forehead.
So I’d like to backtrack a little. I’m aware that last month I may have given the impression that I thought I was some sort of cross between the Dalai Lama and Carl Fogarty, and the best I can say in my defence is that it just goes to show what a confused ramble it was. Originally, it was a short letter to Roger sneering at “Lifestylers” pulling wheelies, but he liked it and asked me to write a bit more so he could run it as an article. Rather than just bung in a shitload of adjectives and scattering of bigger words to pad it out, I tried to add a little depth by chucking in some background about my daily journey through life and “the route I practise my motorcycling Tai Chi on”. I suppose I was hoping it would provide some sort of counterpoint to my later rant, but if it illustrated anything, it was the undeniable fact that, in spite of my best intentions, there’s still a strong adolescent streak in me.
The other inescapable conclusion is that whenever I try to write about ideas from the Orient that originate any further east than Leyton, I’m on pretty shaky ground. Around this time last year, I wrote “The Tao of Despatch” in an attempt to pass on Winnie the Pooh’s version of Taoism, but I got in a right mess and I couldn’t even spell the damn bear’s name correctly (sorry Rog’s Mum). The problem is, I’m a North London boy, living in the South, who’s trying to get his head round the East, while he’s caught up in the western capitalist system – and before I’ve even got myself sorted, I’m trying to pass my wisdom on to you. Which is just a teeny bit optimistic considering that half my ideas came from Kwai Chan Caine (well known purveyor of primetime TV philosophy, occasional Shaolin monk, and regular disher out of Kung Fu slappings) and most of the rest come from an upbeat piece of yellow fur fabric with a penchant for honey!
However, in spite of, or perhaps because of my past failures, there are still things I’d like to say about the idea of Motorcycling Tai Chi. A couple of months ago, Lois wrote an excellent piece on “Stress”. Central to her theme was a wonderful substance I’d never heard of called ‘Noradrenaline’. Among Nora’s many other amazing benefits, Ms Lane listed a couple – “near supernatural alertness” and the “expansion of time”, which I immediately linked to the apparently superhuman feats performed by master martial artists. It was good to have a scientific explanation for a phenomenon that I first encountered during my cherry-breaking bike accident 27 years ago; but the scientists merely identified something that I had already experienced. I’d also hazard a guess that the Chinese had already learned how to harness the staggering potential of the body’s magical secretions a good few thousand years earlier.
Most of you will have had personal experience of exactly the sensations Lois described, so I’m sure you’ll have no problem accepting the principle that your hormones possess the ability to expand time when necessary. But what you do with that time is the crucial bit. When I had my first smash, I was amazed to discover that I had all the time in the world to sift through my options; but as my experience was negligible, they basically boiled down to holding onto the bike, or letting go of it. I remember spending an age watching the orange shards from my indicator dawdle past my left shoulder, before making completely the wrong decision and sliding down the road with a hot petrol-leaking bike on my left leg. Among the significant lessons I learned that day, the most important was to never do that again.
The next time I found myself in a full-on adrenaline rush situation, as I floated slowly towards danger in a time warp, I had loads more options to consider and I actually managed to survive intact. Nonetheless, in my first few years I was guilty of some incredibly stupid and fundamental errors and too many of them finished with me on the tarmac. Every time I arrived home safely from a day’s despatching, or a bit of Hyde Park to Peckham silliness, it was always with the certain knowledge that I had survived because I’d got away with it again, rather than as a result of my consummate skill on two wheels.
This was largely because, from the first time I got on a bike, just about the only thing I was interested in was how to go faster. I probably reached my peak, from a sheer lunatic speed point of view, a few years into my despatch career. This was an extended period when I was regularly riding right on the edge. Whether I was working or not, I seemed to be constantly travelling at insane speeds in relation to the law and the rest of the traffic (not to mention the potential physical dangers). I’m not sure when I finally stopped exploring the boundary between luck and judgment. It was almost certainly after my first child was born (which unfortunately means it was also after I sold my Ducati) but once I recognised it existed, it had a profound effect on my riding. Somewhat belatedly, I realised that I was already way too fast for public roads and as I didn’t have any plans to hone my skills at the limit on the racetrack, it was about time I started improving the rest of my riding.
The most amazing thing was that the moment I began to back off, instead of being constantly reminded of my limitations, I was suddenly impressed by the scope of my capabilities. Whereas previously I’d relied on the sheer intensity of the ride to ensure my progress at the ragged edge, once I changed to a slower, more refined mode, I discovered that I was covering almost the same amount of ground but with infinitely less wear and tear to man and machine. I bought a copy of Roadcraft and wasn’t especially surprised to discover that most of it was the stuff I’d already learned the hard way; but when I began consciously considering its rules on every journey, everything became smoother and the heart-thumping moments rarer.
Long before I came across Pooh-ist Taoism, I’d assimilated everything Roadcraft had to offer and generally felt quietly confident on a bike. Then I began reading about a philosophy that was formulated over twenty-two hundred years before the first motorcycle hit the road and I realised there was another whole level beyond the trusty police handbook. What I call ‘Motorcycling Tai Chi’ is my way of striving for that level.
Every time I take a journey on a bike, I do my exercises. Instead of carelessly pushing the envelope at outrageous speeds around innocent bystanders, I perform my Tai Chi workout at a far more reasonable pace. My aim is to ensure that although riding a bike is second nature, every decision or manoeuvre I make comes about as a result of a conscious and concise thought process and, furthermore, that I execute them with pinpoint precision. The idea being that any time it all starts getting heavy, I’ve got a thoroughly rehearsed repertoire of options to choose from and plenty of time to do it in. Vehicles, traffic islands, and obstructions are an intricate shifting matrix, but when I’m thoroughly tuned in to the flows and eddies on the road it all makes sense. Wu Wei is action in harmony with nature and when I hit that spot, weaving rapidly and smoothly through that pattern requires no more than a variation of the throttle opening and a shift of the hips.
Adhering to the Tao Te Ching’s advice and trying to eliminate my desires and aggressive impulses generally allows me to rise above the aggression and blunders of other road users and an acceptance of life’s inevitable changes does the same for my blood pressure, especially in total gridlock or when I blow it at traffic lights. I say ‘blow it’, because traffic lights are the “Extended Time” gates in life’s game of “Ridge Racer”. In hurry-up mode, by knowing or checking the light sequence well ahead (including using alternative sight lines, like reflections in windows) and then hitting the gaps and the greens just right, it’s amazing what you can achieve in a comparatively sedate cross-town dash.
Besides fluidity through traffic and the increased feeling of security, the most significant payoff for adopting a Tai Chi approach is that occasionally when I’m on a bike and it all feels ‘just so’, I have an overwhelming feeling that I’m totally at one with the Universe. I can’t claim that I’ve mapped out the route, or that I can get there at will, but every once in a while I’ll swoop round a bend and realise that I’m in the foothills of that magic kingdom.
Once I’m there, I feel like Bruce Lee on a bike and know nothing can touch me. Then before I get too carried away with my own omnipotence, I always remind myself that Brucie was killed by a sucker punch, so you can never be too careful.
Be careful out there