Sunday, 24 January 2010

January 24th – to Westerham in Kent to discuss Harley-Davidsons

It was deceptively cold this morning, one of those days when the sun initially hid mischieviously behind blue-grey cloud as if enjoying the fact that icy air was blasting our faces as we descended towards Westerham from the dizzy heights of Clark's Lane. There was a mist clinging to the bare trees and here and there clumps of snow lingered from the blizzard conditions of early January.

We hadn't been to Westerham for some time so it was good to reach our bench and get out the tea and cereal bars. We had a lot to discuss and it all focused on the recent purchase, by our friend David, of a Harley-Davidson Sportster. The main thrust of the conversation was 'should we buy one to keep him company?' Not that it would be that easy, we're both broke, and it's hardly an excuse for turning up at home on a new motorcycle.

Andy knows about motorcycles, he's had a few in his time and he's been a dispatch rider, arguably one of the world's most dangerous jobs. Andy has come a cropper once or twice but he's still alive and he hasn't broken any bones but, as he admitted, it was more a case of luck than judgement and that, of course, is the big question mark hanging over our motorcycle ownership: are we going to kill ourselves?

The other issue concerning the purchase of a Harley is that old cliché that people roll out whenever the subject is mentioned: 'the mid-life crisis'. Personally, it's a phrase I'm getting a little tired of because it is the sort of thing people bring up when they want to stop somebody realising a dream and enjoying themselves. They hope, perhaps, that by merely mentioning the words – 'mid-life crisis' – the person it is aimed at will hastily rein in whatever dream they had for themselves and skulk off self-consciously having been sort of reprimanded by 'the grown-ups' who simply don't want anybody to have any fun. I come across this constantly. There's always somebody who will tell you not to do something and give you a good reason to back up their apathetic point. I've always wanted a real fire, logs or coal, I'm not bothered, but there are loads of people, my wife and parents included, who will moan about the mess and who will be charged with the task of cleaning it.

Where something like a Harley is concerned, it's almost a case of 'well, if I can't have one, why should you?' In fact, if you are considering the purchase of anything that might trigger the phrase 'mid-life crisis' I would say go ahead and do whatever it is: buying a Harley, getting a ticket to ride the Trans-Siberian Express, buying a bass guitar, whatever it might be. As the Nike people would say, 'just do it'.

That phrase 'mid-life' crisis is annoying and misleading on a number of levels. For a start, what is 'mid-life'? I wanted to buy a Harley-Davidson back in the mid-nineties (when I was mid-30s) after reading Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I never finished, more's the pity, and a work of literature that found me desperately hoping the Government of the time would invent something like an amnesty for unread novels in the same way that they do for knives and handguns. It would have been handed in to my local police station. The reality, of course, is that it sits on my bookshelf somewhere, crying out to me to give it another chance. But now I dare not try again as it might re-ignite my passion for the Harley-Davidson 883 Hugger, the bike with the buck horn bars and 'that characteristic Harley rumble'. It's so low on the ground I figured that if I got into any difficulties I could simply let go of it and bounce along the floor in slow motion like the guy in Electraglide in Blue.

But I had no plans on falling off, even though the threat of death or disability loomed large whenever the word 'motorcycle' raised its ugly head. For me, it was all about simply 'turning up' on the bike. It was never about getting my motor running and heading out on the highway, oh no; it was all about polishing the thing in the garage and, more importantly, arriving, turning up: at the gas station, at the school gates, at the office and so on; making an entrance, rather self-consciously, perhaps, but making a noisy entrance nonetheless wearing, perhaps one of those German stormtrooper helmets and having a huge chain draped diagonally across my upper body.

Andy says that there are two types of Harley rider and that we (and our pal David) don't really fit into either category. One is the wannabe Hell's Angels with their tattoos and that greasy, 'greebo' appearance – you know, the sort of people that appear on Scrapheap Challenge. What was that I was saying about German stormtrooper helmets and a large chain? Alright, when push comes to shove I'd be more conventional, it has to be said. I would do my best to play down any Hell's Angel fantasies. The other type is the line dancers, with their chequered shirts, their cowboy boots and their long grey moustaches who listen to Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. That doesn't appeal either.

But none of this gets away from the fact that owning a Harley-Davidson is a nice feeling; it's like when you were a kid and your dad bought you something, like a bike or a guitar or a hi fi system, it was yours to admire, yours to use and, in the case of the Harley, yours to polish. That is what this is all about, it's the joy of possession, of knowing that out there in the garage a low-slung Harley crouches menacingly behind push bikes and cardboard boxes full of junk, and that it can be rolled out on to the front drive to become a conversation piece, something to feel proud of owning.

Andy says its only a matter of time before you come off; he's come off many times, he's been over the handlebars, thanks to a tiny piece of grease on the road, although he admits he was going a little too fast. He's had numb thighs for weeks on end, has been unable to lift his arms above his shoulders for many days and, on one occasion, his knee inflated to the size of a football. It doesn't sound good to me. If I bought a Harley I would want to blank out all thoughts of injury and concentrate on the spiritual element of motorcycling: the wind in my face, the freedom, the noise of that V-twin, although I would always be conscious of the fact that I wasn't in America. It would, out of necessity be the M6, not Route 66; it would be the motorway, not the Interstate, pounds not dollars and Postman Pat policeman, not State Troopers. In other words, it would be a naff British movie, not one made in Hollywood.

If I lived somewhere up in the highlands of Scotland, I'd buy a Harley and use it only when the sun was shining. For the rest of the time it would be under lock and key and I would spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on it and, when nobody's around, I'd probably start making engine noises too.

There are other considerations too. Andy says that having a motorcycle can be a lonely business unless you have mates with similar interests. I know what he means. If I was planning a trip to the coast I'd want to go with somebody else – and I don't mean on the back. I've already resolved that if I ever bought a Harley (which I probably won't) I'll never take passengers on the basis that killing myself is fine, but I'd hate to be responsible for killing or maiming somebody else. So, perhaps Andy and I should buy a Harley just to keep Dave company on those long rides down to the beach. 

The main reason I didn't buy a bike back in the mid-nineties, however, was because of somebody I don't exactly know too well. We only met in the school playground if I happened to be dropping off my son at school. All I know about this other father that I occasionally nodded to was that he was a policeman and that he rode a motorcycle. One morning he greeted me with a smile and I noticed he was on crutches. It was that time of year when people returned from winter breaks skiing. I put two and two together and made three – he'd broken his leg in a skiing accident. Time for a few well-meaning gags and, of course, a jovial 'get well soon'. Except that he wasn't going to get well soon. He'd had a motorcycle accident. A woman driving a biscuit tin (cue the Boots ad song, 'here comes the girls') had pulled out of a side road and hadn't noticed him before it was too late. He had to have his leg amputated.

As I drove home from the school I started thinking. He's had his leg amputated, it's not coming back and all because somebody hadn't seen him. How the hell is he going to deal with that, I wondered, resolving not to buy a motorcycle, not now, not ever.

My main concern at the moment, however, is that David doesn't fall off. People say its inevitable but here's hoping he remains in one piece and rides safely.


  1. You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you do not try...................................................

  2. That, my friend, is the crux of the matter, thank you.