It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time…
Carol, my wife, best friend, editor and business partner, says that I have the mind of an enthusiastic four year old. Pick something up; play with it; drop it on the floor; emotionally easily stressed; excitable; hyperactive; physically brave; better after a mid-afternoon nap; incredibly easily bored; super enthusiastic; inquisitive and – most of all – not that well attached to reality.
If I’m in the right mood to accept the truth – and that’s not always – her assessment is accurate.
All these traits came into full, living colour action as I sat on the edge of my bed in a chilly bedroom, in a not very desirable council house, in Warrington, in 1965.
I was seventeen years old and, in just twenty months, had established a chaotic employment record, had no job prospects, was penniless – almost literally – and had no hope for the future. If I was lucky – very lucky – I would get a council house like my parents and maybe a steady job as a labourer or, in my wildest dreams, even a trade. I would marry a nice girl who worked at Woolworths or the Army and Navy store and we would have a week in Blackpool with our two kids, once a year.
I had no contacts, no help, no idea of what I should or should not do – and I even looked precisely what I was: a poorly dressed member of the lower working classes with a rough, northern accent to match.
Anyone with half a grain of brain would see that my life’s path was clearly mapped out and so what came next was so odd as to be almost certifiably strange. “No, Doctor. He’s not violent or abusive but he’s not with us either…”
So, in the light of a 60w bulb and with the faint heat of a paraffin fire on its lowest setting, I decided to write my first book. It was to be called “Scrambling for Enthusiastic Beginners” and, after just eight months of racing experience and zero success, I would tell readers how to excel in off-road sport.
You see what I mean about not being wholly attached to reality?
Surprisingly, I never did finish the book – although I did start it – and so I thought that I would do the job now – because Scrambling for Enthusiastic Beginners is also a good strapline for my life. Always scrambling about from one near disaster to the next, as the beginner in life’s race that I am – and always managing, often only just, to survive for the next adventure.
A Mismatch of Task and Ability:
Everyone did woodwork and most of my class were incredibly good at it. The one exception was me. In the summer term, the whole class made a stool from oak. The stools had mortise and tenon joints, and a seat made from woven raffia. They were finished with wood oil and would cost £250 in any artisan designer shop today. Remember too, that these were made by eleven and twelve year olds.
However, the first stage in the manufacturing process was to plane a piece of oak square. I couldn’t do this. My eyes and hands had no connection so every Monday afternoon I was made to plane and plane and plane until I could do it. And every week I failed.
I must have used several large trees and made not one micron of progress but still Mr L insisted that I would continue until the wood was square. What a total waste of everyone’s time when I could have written a really nice poem for him about trees or even about making stools.
My First Pro Gig:
If I couldn’t plane a piece of oak square, I did have other talents. Morning assembly followed a rigid pattern every day, a key part of which was a Bible reading on stage by a pupil.
The service operated on a rota basis. The Head was always present, along with the senior staff, but each day a different teacher was supposed to organise the rest of the gig. It soon became known amongst the less enthusiastic teachers that Melling, you know – that odd kid who wanders around as if he’s lost – could actually sort out a Bible reading by himself and then deliver it on stage without any practice
Well done Melling – get on with it, there’s a good lad, and don’t bother me unless you have to…
So, at eleven years old I became a semi professional organiser and reader in public.
Surtees and the MV at Creg Ny Baa Changed My Life Forever:
From far behind us over my left shoulder, came a wailing, sonorous howl – not tortured or distressed but a war cry of some unnatural being, the like of which I had never seen, nor could even imagine.
The noise was from a 350cc, four cylinder MV Agusta – the legendary Italian fire engine – ridden by the greatest rider of his era, John Surtees. He came down through the gears and the wail rose and fell like the mating call of some mythical beast. I was transfixed and leaned forward. Then, with a clarity still burnt into my mind today, the MV screamed past us with Surtees buried in the fuel tank.
Surtees and the MV – burned into my soul forever
The noise tore into my very soul. This was something magnificent. It sliced through the bonds which tied me to the sepia world of my council house with its paraffin fire, the bus trips into town sitting alongside the ancient women who smelled of age and oldness, and the fights and arguments which were the corrosive liquor of my daily existence.
The sun shone, the red and silver MV gleamed and the noise was a war cry of freedom and joy. That night, I lay in bed and the wail of the MV sang me to sleep.
Very, Very, Very Early Onset Dementia:
Currently, I take part in dementia research because I have seen the results of this illness first hand and it is a truly sad thing to witness. In one piece of research we were given tasks to do which are proven, reliable indicators of early onset dementia. Some of these involved remembering number or letter sequences and other sections asked participants to recall the names of people we had met in the past or places where we had put things. Not being able to find basic household implements in your own home is often a good indicator of dementia.
I completed one extensive exercise and a nice lady contacted me to suggest that I should see my GP soonest because my symptoms were clearly indicating that either I already had, or was well on the way to having, dementia.
I wrote a, fairly, polite note to her explaining that if this was the case then I have had dementia all my life because I have never been able to successfully do any of the things on the questionnaire. Interestingly, I never received a reply.
Had they known that I was an early onset dementia sufferer, perhaps my teachers would have been a bit kinder and less inclined to say that I was lazy or indolent – neither of which were true.
Instead, I was kept in detention, whacked with a wide range of objects including – and this was a first – lengths of Bunsen burner tubing knotted together in a sort of modern cat o’ nine tails. That was creative on the part of my chemistry teacher!
A New World Calls:
We took a long, long time to get airborne and I sat on the edge of my seat, not with fear, but with excitement as the exhausts became ever brighter and we bumped down the runway. Then there was a surge and we were airborne, the heavily laden plane struggling to break free of its gravitational bonds.
Was this some mystical metaphor for the next stage of my life?
No, not really. In fact, not at all. There was nothing to see so I got out my book and read. Books and books and books – my friends, my support, my doors to other worlds.
A long time later, the plane landed at RAF Idris, some distance from Tripoli city, and we had arrived. I shuffled off the plane and began a new chapter in my life.
Eagle Airways – flying me to a new life
Welcome to the World of Work – No Girlie Pictures in the Canterbury Tales:
During tea break I sat in the crude canteen, in a corner away from everyone else. My workmates studied the Sporting Pink for likely horses, and ogled the pictures in Health and Efficiency magazine – whilst I read a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: we didn’t have a lot in common.
I loved motorcycles more than life itself.
In a world of dullness, make do and eyes cast down, motorcycles swept away the tired, stained hues of Warrington and broke through the restraining doors. Pushed wide open, they revealed a brave new world of soul stirring noises, glorious colours, hedgerows disappearing in grey green blurs and, most of all, freedom.
Without bikes, I was a labourer painting shelves in semi-darkness. With a motorcycle, I sloughed off the chrysalis which bound me to mediocrity and I became something I neither knew nor understood – except that it was glorious.
Bikes were me – and I was bikes with every molecule in my body.
A Desperate Need:
The Velocette Venom Thruxton – my idea of an erotic dream
What I really wanted, no – actually needed merely to stay alive, was a Velocette Venom Clubmans with a Brooklands silencer which went, braahhh, braahhh, braahhh at traffic lights, frightened nervous cats and made girls like K go weak at the knees and look at me lustfully. Well, slightly lustfully – but still with an encouraging smile…
My hero Mike Hailwood, on the wrecked MV Agusta, winning 1965 Senior TT
Out on the track no-one looked at who your dad was or where you lived. No-one knew if you were shy or confident – if you didn’t know how to hold a girl’s hand properly or kiss her. There was no-one measuring your social status or lack of it.
The flag dropped and the race was on. Rich or poor, council house or mansion, one of the boys or an outsider: no, nothing counted or was of any importance. If you rode better, were braver, more determined then you won and if weren’t, you didn’t – and no amount of excuses or mitigating circumstances meant a single thing.
In the fog of cigarette smoke, the cacophony of alcohol fuelled shouting, the laughter and the boasting I remembered Hailwood’s epic win and came to a conclusion. I would be a bike racer and I would be judged not on my background but by what happened when I went underneath the chequered flag.
They were noble aspirations but the path I had chosen wasn’t going to be an easy one.
How the Japanese Really Destroyed the British Bike Industry:
My wonderful sponsor Eddie Crooks – sold on Suzukis because they were simply fantastic motorcycles
Fred Miles, who was the Suzuki sales representative for the North-West, arrived at Eddie’s deeply unglamorous little shop with three bikes on a trailer. Fred did not attempt any hard sell. On the contrary, he just told Eddie, and his Service Manager Frank Whiteway, to take the bikes and try to break them. Eddie and Frank took the 50s and an 80 on to Walney Island and rode them flat out. The little bikes ran faultlessly and Eddie became an instant fan. That’s the truth of how the Japanese destroyed the British motorcycle industry.
Burn baby burn – and the Reliants did do their job wonderfully well
In the 1970s there had been a fire in the paint shop at Frodshams and I remember meeting the then Sales Manager in Warrington Market. He looked really rough, still with blood shot eyes days after the inferno – but was beaming like someone who had just won the lottery. One of the interesting drawbacks of the Reliant is that they burn with great enthusiasm in an accident because the resin which bonds the glass fibres together is super inflammable. Once the flames take hold, there is no putting them out!
When the fire had begun in the paint shop there had been a mad panic to push every single second-hand Reliant the firm had in stock, into the inferno. This was a relatively easy job because they burnt out almost instantly making space for the next one. When the lads objected, on the wholly reasonable grounds that the fumes were trying to kill them and lumps of burning roof were dropping on their heads, they were re-motivated by the promise of an all expenses night in the pub – truly, the Dunkirk spirit writ large in a Warrington paint shop.
The insurance assessor eventually came to visit and he was more than a little sceptical about how many Reliants were being painted at the same time, in such a tiny workshop – but he still paid out.
In the Presence of a MotoGod:
Chris Pusey at his magnificent best – and I raced with him!
Chris Pusey tears after the leaders and, on the second corner, drops the Hagon grasser even harder into the loose surfaced bend. Now, he’s hanging off the bike – right arm tight against his body, stretching the throttle cable almost to breaking point – left arm straight, fighting the immense slide.
The JAP engine snarls and Chris’ Hagon rears up like a stallion ready for battle. The bike is still laid over at an angle which must result in a crash but Pusey climbs forward and out on the machine, balancing the roaring, bucking, 200lbs of metal with the delicacy of an ice skater in a final pirouette.
He charges through the field, achieving the impossible for the five remaining laps and then finishes with an enormous wheelie to the delight of the huge crowd, baying their approval.
Chris Pusey – one of the great motorcycle racers of all time – in a Cheshire Centre meeting with riders of my humble calibre.
A Novel Form of Credit Purchase:
The White Strength Dot – coming to a derelict garage near you…
Dots featured an interesting leading link suspension which actually worked very well for the time. In fact, I would have happily ridden a Dot when I first began racing – and I could have had one of the best specification machines on an interesting form of Hire Purchase. I was introduced to a lad who worked in the Dot stores and he was stealing a complete bike, bit by bit every day – or every few days if it was a difficult week. The idea was that I would pay for each part as it arrived in Warrington and eventually I would have a complete motorcycle.
I didn’t have the money for the project but, even if I had, this was real, unequivocal theft – not re-cycling some scrap bits in exchange for the much loved “drink” – and I wouldn’t entertain it.
My First Ban – Welcome to the Rest of Your Life:
This time, I was actually summoned before the committee and had my first formal ban – for placing what were considered to be commercial ads on a noticeboard reserved for bike club members.
I should have taken a photo, or saved some other memento, because getting banned was going to become a very regular occurrence during the rest of my life – but I just shrugged and walked away. If getting banned was the price to pay for being cleverer than everyone else, and working harder, then so be it. I was fed up with club life, with all its constraints because I wanted to be a racer.
Love is a very strange thing
I wanted to race so badly that I used to go to sleep, fitfully because I have never slept well, with the snarl of race engines in my ears. I would brush my teeth accompanied by the scent of Castrol “R”, not minty gel, and stand patiently whilst some boss or other berated me for whatever sin I had committed that hour/day/week and see not an angry face but a chequered flag. In short, I was a hard core addict before I had even sent in my first entry form.
Cooler Than Carnaby Street:
Steve McQueen, Bud Ekins and a pack of Triumph twins
Far cooler than Carnaby Street
I genuinely worshipped Ken and for a rather strange reason. Although I could sort of drive a car, I didn’t yet have a licence. By contrast, Ken drove around in a cloud of ice crystals he was so cool. His favourite method of driving was to slump forward with his elbows through the steering wheel. Forget Carnaby Street, the Kings Road and all the rest of allegedly hip things. Ken could drive with his elbows through the steering wheel – now that really was cooler than the coolest thing in the universe.
Success is Not All That it Seems:
And my bike was considerably worse than this Greeves Hawkstone…
Steam was issuing forth in clouds from the PVC pants as I led into the last rise with “4-Speed” hot, or at least lukewarm, on my shoulder ready to adopt his normal passing line as my Dot expired. But this time, as the motor gasped its last breath, I withdrew the clutch and the revs soared to somewhere around 4,100 rpm and I paddled for all I was worth towards the chequered flag and the first rider I had ever beaten.
Whilst I was personally delighted with my success, I didn’t expect much of a reaction from the flag marshal and the other riders, but they too seemed to be ecstatic. At least, they were certainly very animated and gestured desperately at the clutch side of the Villiers engine. They had good reason, for there was an uncommon amount of smoke pouring from the primary chain case.
Ken removed the oil filler plug to investigate whilst I sat astride the bike, basking in the glory. We both made tactical errors! Given access to fresh air, the merely white hot, cork lined clutch plates soon began to blaze merrily and the flames licked purposefully up the leg of my PVC jeans. No amount of huffing and puffing could extinguish the blaze and I began to wish that my mentor who had taught me the art of clutch slipping had also mentioned the dangers inherent in the exercise.
A Useful Statistic For Someone – but Not For Me:
Here I am with Lew, my friend and race “assistant”, at Pott Shrigley
Lew was great company, and a good friend, but not a racer at heart
My mum and dad only ever came to one race, and it was at Pott Shrigley where I was kidnapped by the Red Cross. Later on, my mum did see me race, and win, which was a wonderful experience for me
Unusually, the medical cover at this event was provided by the Red Cross rather than the normal St John Ambulance Brigade. As I was frantically kick-starting the Tribsa, a couple of marshals grabbed the bike and dragged it off the track whilst a whole gaggle of Red Cross medics surrounded me and insisted that I accompany them to their medical tent. No matter how much I protested my fitness they were having none of it until I had been signed in and my “injuries” recorded.
Once I had been logged in, everyone lost interest in me and my protestations that I was fit and well were fully accepted. Now, all that I had to do was retrieve the bike and then sit in a sulk when the 500cc final was run – thinking that I should have been in it.
The situation was all the more strange because, even in my brief riding career, I had learned that medical care at race meetings was very relaxed. Okay, properly dying was a bit of an issue because the body had to be dragged off the track but anything less than this – broken legs, arms, concussion and so on – were considered to be mere flesh wounds.
The back story to my incarceration was that, according to paddock gossip, the Red Cross cohort in charge at Pott Shrigley were in some sort of competition for the most casualties treated during a season – and motorcycle race meetings, rather than church fetes or pony club events, were considered to be the mother lode in terms of building up casualties – hence the desire to get me logged in and recorded, followed by a marked disinterest in treating me.
Losing My (racing) Virginity:
I rode through the paddock and back to my trailer recklessly fast and dived into the car for the paperwork for the event – the “regs” (regulations) as the entry forms are known. Yes, it was true. There was prize money paid down to fourth place in the 500cc final. I had won prize money. I had lost my amateur racing virginity and was now a paid rider. I sat back against the trailer in a daze and took deep breaths. This is the world of the amateur racer where success is an unusual experience.
I felt choked to the point of death working in Manchester
The faces of the commuters were a universal, sun-starved grey. The females tinted this sepulchral patina with make-up but still the greyness forced its way out through the pinks and whites, and oozed malevolently on to their dresses and jackets.
I looked at the faces a lot as we swayed and staggered in the overcrowded carriage, pushed into each other through the movement of the train whilst simultaneously being kept light years apart by the English obsession with privacy and personal space.
Their eyes used to fascinate me – darting, protective and quick to default to fight or flight when we pulled into Cadishead Station and more commuters jammed into the already non-existent space. Their faces were blank and empty, sucked dry of any emotion by the endless, mindless, repetitive strictures of life in a Manchester office where thought, and thinking, were punishable crimes.
Racer Behaving Very Badly:
I still feel ashamed today – and S in such lovely jeans…
She really did try hard, and persuaded her dad to bring her to a meeting to watch me race. It was raining and the paddock was a muddy quagmire. I’m still mortified with what happened next. S had dressed smartly for me. She was wearing a cream jacket, lime green jeans and open toed sandals with little high heels. She had even put on some plastic Poppit beads, which were all the rage at the time.
I should have been grateful, and I do mean actually bursting with appreciation, that a nice girl had made such a big effort for me. But what did I do? Largely, ignore her – because I was having a bad day with the bike. This was brought to a head when the valve pulled out of the rear inner tube.
Having to change the inner tube just before the race was a real issue. Seeing a really lovely girl sink over the top of her sandals in the mud wasn’t. Eventually S’ dad led her quietly away, bare footed and carrying her sandals, with her lime green jeans covered in mud: I’m still ashamed today.
A Complete Natural:
Like a duck to water…
I have been pondering about how to describe what happened next and this is the best metaphor I can provide. Have you ever seen a duckling or a gosling the first time they fall into a pond or a river as they follow their parents? They splosh into the water quite untidily and then, a few seconds later, pop up and start paddling away as if they have been doing this all their life. For me, teaching was just like this.
I stood at the front of the classroom and introduced myself. Then I explained the lesson and we began. The kids listened, I told the story of the shipwreck and the island well and with enthusiasm, and then we all got down to work.
I marked, corrected and encouraged like a born teacher and the kids wrote and drew for me. It was as if I had never been anything else but a teacher, it felt so natural and so easy.
The Not Very Grand Tour:
The Norton factory still exists in Bracebridge Street, Birmingham, but the bikes are long gone
I didn’t visit all the factories making motorcycles – but I did a fair bit of the Grand Tour and you might be interested to know just how basic they all were.
To give you a flavour of them all, here is a quote from Bert Hopwood, who later became Managing Director of BSA, describing his time as Chief Designer at Norton, just a few miles down the road from BSA, at Bracebridge Street in Birmingham. I never saw the Norton factory working but Hopwood’s words might give you an idea of British manufacturing in the 1950s and 1960s. Here’s Mr Hopwood talking about his first day at Norton.
“Not even during the war time blitzes did I have to work under such difficult circumstances; the whole Norton building was such a slummy shambles sandwiched with machines and parts, and men and vermin, in a noisy conglomeration.
“My space was not too bad. After all, it was reasonably quiet and did not let in all that much rain.”
By the end of the 1960s, when I first saw these companies, they were better but still light years’ distant from modern manufacturing.
Not Love at First Sight:
The truly unique Alan Clews – a thorough professional
I wasn’t fond of Alan Clews, and he didn’t much like me personally, but we did respect each other. I have limitless admiration for his vision and determination and I think that he admired my determination and integrity as a journalist. Certainly, this is what he said on a couple of the more peaceful times in our relationship. On other occasions, he described me very differently!
By the time I first met Alan, I was writing professionally and had already developed a near religious zeal for telling my readers the truth as I saw it. Nothing, and no-one, was going to come between me and the duty of care I felt to readers, and my deep sense of privilege in being able to speak to them.
So, when I tested the very first CCM I had no problems saying that the chassis was too stiff and the engine too fierce for clubman riders like me. Alan became very cross and one of the more polite phrases he used was that I was a “Total w****r not fit to ride a motocross machine.”
He may, or may not, have been correct in his assessment of my riding ability but I still wrote what I believed to be true about the bike – and would have done so if the Archangel Gabriel had been standing next to the CCM threatening me with a fiery sword: I was going to respect my readers and tell them honestly what I thought and that was that!
Uncle Eric – the Genius:
Eric Cheney – a genius in jeans
The difference between Alan Clews and Eric Cheney was so great that one could easily imagine they had set out to be as far apart as possible.
For me, the single greatest contrast between the two was that Eric very often gave the impression that he was somewhere else, a long way distant, when he was actually speaking to me. Clews was impatient, critical, enthusiastic, smiling and sometimes overtly bad mannered to me but, when he was addressing anyone, there was no doubt that they were the focus of all his attention – for a few seconds at least.
Eric was very kind and warm to me on a personal level, and yet I often felt that only a small part of him was ever fully engaged in talking to me.
Probably, if Pope Julius II had offered Michelangelo the chance to do a second Sistine Chapel he would have been turned down. For creative geniuses, it is the act of creation which is the magic key – not making money from their God given talents. So it was with Eric designing, and manufacturing, motorcycles.
Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me!
I look as if I have just been made BSA’s works rider – because I was!
I was courteous, respectful and thankful for my privileged position. In terms of riding or technical ability I had no right to even clean up to crumbs from the top table at BSA, so I let everyone who helped me in the factory, from the fitters to the senior management, know that I was grateful – very grateful indeed.
Finally, I was known to be scrupulously honest – even recklessly so. I was prepared to argue with the Managing Director of the BSA Group to put forward my readers’ concerns about the quality of BSA products. I then wrote of my disappointment with the interview in two magazines – and didn’t spare the criticism.
This should have resulted in me being excommunicated by BSA forever – but it didn’t. My criticisms of Lionel Jofeh, who was unpopular at BSA, were considered to be fair and so my opinion, even though I was very young, was accepted and I ended up with a full works BSA B50 for free, to keep communications open: that’s how highly I was thought of at the factory.
How I Tried to Save the British Motorcycle Industry – Really!
The Triumph Adventurer – the bike which could have saved the British bike industry (maybe!)
There was a fix for the whole mess that BSA and Triumph were in and it was both affordable and achievable – and without a huge investment. I am aware of the solution because I sat with Reg Dancer, BSA’s PR chief, and gave him my ideas. The way forward was for BSA to concentrate on dirt bikes and for Triumph to lead the road machine sales – but it was too late…
Discovering Frank Melling:
There’s a New World Somewhere They Call the Promised Land
(with apologies to The Seekers)
At first, I expected to come last in everything at college – and in every way. I was too frightened to say anything for fear of looking stupid or, worse still, intellectually shallow and incapable of managing the ideas which were being discussed. Now, my assignment marks had a huge effect on my self-confidence. Little by little, I began to understand that I was at least as bright as any of the other students: this was even better than racing!
I had found my place in the world and I liked it very much.
The End of the Beginning:
Wonderful Beatles memories – but so distant from my life
For dramatic effect, I ought to write that I woke up on 1 January, 1970 and had some intense, revelatory moment which said the 1960s were over. The truth is; I didn’t – there was not even one molecule of awareness or interest.
For a start, no-one knew that we had just experienced “The ‘60s” – or had any concept of what they were. We knew the Beatles, the war in Vietnam, the Cuban crisis which had nearly led to World War III, the price of petrol and a bag of chips. But this was all. As for a bigger picture, we had none – and not just at my end of the social spectrum either.
However, what I did know was important to me. Now, I knew how to hold a girl’s hand and kiss her gently. I knew how to make great starts at a grass track, win ten shillings and where to stand to get my prize money. Thanks to Sammy Green’s wash house I understood how to make money from Villiers spares.
Eric Cheney’s special gift for his “nephew”.
It meant so much to me that I never used it on my race bike. It’s still in my office today.
I also was certain that I didn’t want to be an engineer, work at the Post Office or become a petty thief: all this I knew.
So, I had scrambled enthusiastically through the 1960s and survived it with a smile. Now, I had the 1970s before me, and what a roller coaster ride this was going to be.
And to read the rest of the stories, click here to buy the full book
If you would like your book signing, or a short dedication,
please get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org