and Motorcycle Hooligans
The Safety Bicycle burst into popularity in the 1890's. It superseded the “Ordinary”, what we call the penny farthing, because it was much more practical. Athletic young gentlemen would be the only persons who could ride the Ordinary. You see pictures of them, dressed in tweed suits, knickerbockers, deerstalkers, large moustaches, and tobacco pipes arrogantly perched above the common folk like so many horse riders. Once the Safety Bicycle came on the market, women could ride them. It did not take long for women to discover that they could outmanoeuvre and outpace young gentlemen. Humiliated, young gentlemen, being unable to beat them, had to join them, and the cycling craze took off. Alfred Jarry the playwright, a very small man, used to cycle furiously round Paris with a brace of revolvers putting out the street lights. Women who took advantage of their new-found freedom were called “scorchers”. They were blamed for causing horses to bolt by zigzagging at high speed through the traffic. Complaints in Parliament were frequent. Many a Knight of the Shire would issue dire warnings about what might happen if such women were ever to be allowed the vote.
My father's mother, Jane Watmough, née Brockbank, was a Scorcher. In deepest Lancashire folk used to say that she and her kind were emissaries of the Devil and they would strew tintacks in the road in order to impede the women's diabolical machinations. My grandmother miscarried as a result of falling off her bicycle when eight months pregnant. So I lost an auntie through scorching. Her living daughter, Helena, my Auntie Ena, followed in her tyretracks. One day, head down, derrière en l'air, she scorched down the mountain through the town of Ulverston in what was then the Furness part of Lancashire (now Cumbria). Crank right to cross the town square on the diagonal. No slowing down. Crank left to continue her precipitous progress. Up the tailgate of a furniture van and smack into the contents. She was, I understand, quite severely injured.
My father, who parted company with Barrow Grammar School at the age of fourteen with no regrets on either side, obtained employment on the Furness Railway. He saved up his pennies until he had enough money to buy – a motorbike. Perhaps unwisely, since sons are generally advised against confiding in thir mothers, he told his mother what he intended to do. She was horrified. But not for the usual reason that mothers are horrified by motorbikes. She insisted on being taken to the motorcycle dealers and speaking to the manager. Why did Jack (my father) insist on that particular motorbike? “It's the only one I can afford”. This was a real horrible boneshaker.
“What is the best motorcycle in your shop?” she asked the manager.
“Sithee, Madam, these three bikes are identical. Two are going to be entered in the Isle of Man TT Races, and the other is for sale.”
So my grandmother bought my father, as his first motorbike, a racing Francis-Barnett. And the first thing that my father did with his racing Fanny Bee was to take his own father out for a spin and wrap him round a telegraph pole, requiring him to wear a plaster jacket.
In those days it was widely believed that motorcyclists had no respect for speed limits (fancy that), and the police made it their business to try to apprehend offenders against the then general 20 mph speed limit. In those days the machines were fitted with had-operated oil pumps. The oil used was castor oil (hence the name “Castrol”). When a policeman stepped into the road with his arms out to stop a gang of motorcyclists, they would form a line abreast and pump their oil pumps vigorously. The resulting black cloud would leave the policeman with just white eyes and teeth, with everything else covered in greasy black soot. For some reason the police took offence.
A little later, my father had graduated to a 1000cc Matchless, which was a powerful beast for a hundred years ago, and he induced a police patrolman to chase him, believing that he had the edge over the representative of the law. He led the officer up Hard Knott Pass, which was a one-in-three hill and in those days unmetalled. The policemen's machine proved unequal to the gradient. So may father stopped, and “made bacon” at him. [Readers are advised not to do this to officers of the law. To “make bacon”, you press your nose upwards with your left thumb, place your right thumb against the tip of the little finger of your left hand, extend both hands in the direction of Authority, put your tongue out, and wiggle your free fingers.] He then took a circuitous route back to Barrow. He was greeted with the words:
“Sithee lad, there's a gentleman in the parlour waiting to see thee.”
It was the policeman.
I like to tell people that my father was the world's first motorcycle hooligan. Actually, he probably was not. He was encouraged by his elder cousin Don. One day Don was minding his own business in a public house with some friends when a young man came in looking threatening.
“You can't scare me, Don Watmough!”
“I don't think I ever suggested I could.”
“Don't give me any of that flannel. Here's five pounds you can't scare me.”
“Hop on the back.”
I don't think I was ever told what road it was. It sounds like the Preston By-pass. Don rode straight over a roundabout at seventy miles an hour, right through the rhododendrons and other shrubbery, turned round in the road, repeated the exercise in the other direction, and returned to the pub. The challenger had to forfeit his five pounds because he had evacuated his bowels and the evidence was unpleasantly obvious to the other customers.
Don went on to greatness. The rest of his story comes from a letter that he wrote to my father asking him to join him in an exciting and lucrative enterprise in America. (This letter has disappeared, but my mother had it and showed it to me.) The enterprise consisted of running alcoholic beverages across the Great Lakes from Canada during Prohibition. Distilleries were set up along the Canadian shore, perfectly legitimately. Don (so he said) had a boat powered by a Lycoming aero engine that would do 120 knots. (The world water speed record was a mere 97 knots at that time.) The Feds couldn't catch him. However, the Feds were having a boat built that was faster than Don's. What they didn't know was that Don was having a boat built powered by two aero engines. Strange as it seems, Don died in his bed of natural causes.
Don's story was confirmed during a television programme about the water speed record. A boatbuilder from Boston was interviewed. He said that his grandfather used to build boats for both the rum runners and the Federal authorities. As soon as he started building a boat for one party, he informed the other, and they would place an order for something faster. Thus they leapfrogged each other, and the boatyard prospered.
I only remember two occasions when my father's love of motorbikes impinged on our neighbourhood. Though he liked music, and I think I was born loving Beethoven, he used to say that there was no sweeter music than the sound of a properly race-tuned motorcycle engine. Radio broadcasts of the Isle of Man TT Races would bring tears to his eyes, and I grew up knowing the names of the great riders of the day. He could tune an engine himself, though his method was perhaps unconventional. He would take the exhaust pipe right away from the cylinder, fire the engine up, and make adjustments until the flame adopted the shape that satisfied him. At the time I am writing about he had a single-pot 650 BSA. The noise from the unmuffled engine was beyond imagination. Windows broke in all the houses round about. The only house that didn't have broken windows was ours. I guess that the panes were too close for sympathetic vibrations to be generated.
Another time he bought a Corgi scooter. This was the original scooter, designed during the war to be dropped with paratroops to give immediate mobility. With the front end and the saddle detached and placed alongside the body of the vehicle, it took up very little space. [A specimen of the Corgi fell into the hands of an Italian engineer called Piaggio, who, using the original concept, added smart metalwork and double seats and created the Vespa and the Lambretta scooters that furnished cheap transport in Italy after the War and which became the vehicle of choice for stylish young men.] Some of these stylish young men, office colleagues of my father, would jeer at my father and say that the looked like a preying mantis. (I thought he did, too.) They would wait at the bottom of the hill on the way to work until he went past. Then they would race past him waving merrily. That was too much for my father. He race-tuned his Corgi. He advanced the timing so far that he had to run down the road pushing it until it fired. Then it would burst into life and suffuse the neighbourhood with blue smoke. He would then wait at the bottom of the hill until the youngsters arrived, then overtake them with a wave of his tobacco pipe and a poisonous blue cloud.
My father had a work colleague who was resented for his habit of rushing out of the office on the stroke of five o'clock, jumping on to his bicycle and pedalling away furiously. So my father spent a lunch hour swapping this man's handlebars with his saddle. The result was replaced backwards in the cycle rack. Father and his colleagues rushed out after this man at five o'clock to be entertained by the sight of him pedalling desperately to no avail and falling off.
In my youth not all young men aspired to Italian scooters. Many of us regarded such persons, who were called Mods, as effete. Motorcycle manufacturers of the day all produced a model that could just comfortably do 100 mph, and these were aimed at the first generation of young men who could afford to buy such things in the Post-War boom. A favourite game was to put a coin in the juke-box of the Busy Bee Café on the Watford By-Pass, leap on the bike, often with a girl sitting side-saddle on the pillion so as not to crush her fashionably starched petticoats, reach a certain roundabout, and return before the record stopped. Crash helmets were not required. This procedure required the magic speed of 100 mph to be reached. Occasionally, though, the ton-up boys would be overtaken by a Daimler ambulance doing 120 mph taking one of their number to the local hospital.
There was a motorbike, a Velocette 500cc Venom, that belonged to several boys in my class in quick succession. The law was very relaxed relating to licensing. I took the test on a 50cc moped and promptly bought a 650 Beezer Gold Star. This Venom was notorious. In the end a boy called Dromard amputated his own leg against a lamp-post while riding it. His life was saved by the prompt action of a passer-by. He took his A Levels a fortnight after the accident. Ever since, he was known as Peg-Leg Dromard. He joined the Merchant Navy and became the source of a number of stories that I would not dare include in these memoirs. Another boy, not from my school, achieved notoriety for his willingness to apply ingenuity to life-threatening projects. He always wore a Pickelhaube, a German spiked helmet from the Kaiser's War, while riding a motorbike. He contrived to fit an automatic gearbox into a Vintage Scott, and was trying to overtake the ton-up boys on the By-pass when the crankcase blew open and showered the surroundings with springs and cogs.
For the benefit of S, who has been trying to persuade me to conjure up discreditable stories about mutual friends, I think it is fitting to mention his own contribution to motorcycling history. While he was at Oxford he rode a BSA Bantam that, essentially, was too decrepit to be consigned to a scrapheap. Brakes were the soles of his feet. The clutch was operated by a piece of string draped over the handlebars. The lights only worked when the machine was stationary, which was convenient for when the police stopped him for not having any lights. The engine was secured to the frame with wooden wedges hammered in and secured with wood screws. He was often being fined for offences against the Road Traffic Acts. For instance, he was caught carrying two passengers while holding a provisional licence. Another time he was fined for simultaneously not having means of giving audible warning of approach and not having a silencer. The entire proceeds from a year's dancing, admittedly depleted by leakages over the bar counter, were dissipated through paying his fines. Finally, he took this unspeakable object to Reading University where he read for his Doctorate. At the end, the students from the Engineering Faculty made a rough plinth out of concrete in the middle of the cycle sheds, embedded a length of angle iron in it, and welded the carcass of this BSA Bantam to the angle iron. Then they affixed a brass plaque to it, reading:
“In memory of Doctor S, in honour of his important contributions to Road Safety”.
Around that time a regular to my favourite pub was a youngish man called Keith, who had a rather volatile Irish wife called Carmel. They used to travel on a small motorbike. One chilly New Year's Eve, Carmel took to drinking sherry in half-pint glasses and became incapable. The question was, how to get her home. The chaps cut down the landlady's washing line, sat Keith on his motorbike, placed Carmel on the pillion seat, and tied the two of them together round the waist. Then they tied Carmel's feet to the footrests, and Keith rode back home. Unfortunately, the knot that secured Carmel to Keith was behind her back where he couldn't reach it. So he was tied to her, and she was tied to the motorbike. They had to sit there outside their house until a passer-by should come by and recover from laughing sufficiently to be able to release them.
Another story from those old days relates to N. Now N was from Lincolnshire, which makes him a very special kind of person as I shall explain. N was convicted by the Oxford Magistrates of speeding on a bicycle because he overtook a police car on the Banbury Road. N's parents had banned him from ever even putting his leg over a motorcycle, not just because of the usual parental prejudice against that form of transport. A cousin had ridden a Norton Dominator straight through some park railings, which caused him to be turned into slices like bacon. N's parents had had to identify the remains. Once I visited N on his native ground and he gave me a driving lesson in how to stay alive in Lincolnshire.
“Pull in here”, he instructed. “You see that red dot traversing the horizon. That is Farmer So-and-so's Aston Martin. He has been drinking pints with double whisky chasers in Sleaford Market since it opened. You do not want to be on the same road as him.”
Once the red Aston was safely out of the way, I was taken to see a village pond where, on separate occasions, three Aston Martins had been inundated after failing to negotiate a bend. I learned that the Lincolnshire Police used to wait until the summer, when the dykes started to dry out and the tops of cars started to become visible above the waterline. Generally there was a carcase within still with gritted teeth, top gear engaged, and the accelerator pedal pressed down as far as it would go. All the police had to do was to match the car's numberplate against their Missing Persons List.
I mention this, because not so many years ago I was driving to a dinner engagement in deepest Lincs. Soon after I slowed down to 30 mph to enter the town of Horncastle (the Honk'sle of morris dancing legend), a brightly painted square home-made contraption overtook me at a speed that I estimated as 120 mph. Admittedly, it is hard to judge other vehicles' speed, especially when the difference between yours and theirs is massive, but that was my best estimate. It was then that I remembered N's lesson, and I was sore afraid.
My host and hostess were Old Age pensioners approximately the same age as myself. They lived in a hamlet just off a B-road. My host told me that he had spent the last fortnight in dread, waiting for the familiar brown envelope marked “Lincolnshire Constabulary – Open Immediately”.
What had happened was that he had taken his wife on a routine shopping trip. The villagers had petitioned the police to take action against people speeding on the B-road (it had a 50 mph limit). Now, what vehicle does an Old Age Pensioner use to take his wife on a routine shopping expedition? In Lincolnshire?
Answer: a Fireblade.
They had gone through the speed trap at 130 mph.
Once the statutory fortnight was up, he employed the grapevine by which a lot of Lincolnshire business is conducted, and learned that the reason he had not been prosecuted was that the police radar equipment was not calibrated to register the speed that he had been doing. So what does an Old Age Pensioner with a Blade do who has escaped on a technicality? In Lincolnshire?
He deliberately went through the speed trap at 130 mph, again!
I asked him if he had been a signatory to the original petition. He went quiet.
Oh Dear! I have not left space to detail the crimes of my nearest and dearest. Perhaps that is just as well. Perhaps one of my descendants one of these days will write a book about them. I do not think I have enough time left on this planet to treat the subject adequately.