Thursday, December 31, 2009


Another in my series of essential/wonderful reading for long winter nights. This story appears in the anthology of motorcycle writing 'Twistgrip' (1969, George Allen & Unwin) edited by the incomparable L.J.K. Setright (pic below), who wrote for decades about cars and motorcycles in a wonderful prose. The author of the following short reminiscence is identified in 'Twistgrip' only as 'R.B.'

Amende Honorable, by 'R.B.'

"On the hill above Windsor, by the tower where Henry VIII made that splendidly practical protest at the price of meat, our sidecar outfit stopped owning to some trifling derangement. I ran her into the kerb, surrounded myself with the nebula of tobacco smoke which is so helpful to diagnosis, and fell to work with a wrench.

Vaguely I became conscious of a Presence, top-hatted and short-coated, aged possibly fourteen, moving in arcs about the side of my machine that faced the pavement, whose whistling implied a dearth of desert fruit (I'll not name them!).
Coldly he eyed my much-travelled sidecar, and then - brassily, provocatively, using our faithful 'bus's name - he said, 'Not much of a Royal!'[1] and cocked an eye to see what should follow.

This was new. Those several thousand miles a year take us by many public schools. Charterhouse has a keen eye for maker's transfers or the build of a tank; Harrow affects detachment, but will steal up and make diffident enquiry; Marlborough has a nice ear for exhaust notes; and the school Ardingly way has two who risked a late call-over to fetch me a spring link from the village (my appreciation, translatable into many tins of bloater-paste, was only reluctantly accepted). So I had hoped for better things from Eton.
Some cell in my brain, sealed these twenty years, opened, and I spoke to my passenger, honey-smooth.

'Strange,' I temporised, with the air of one whose withers are unwrung, 'Strange about Eton. Classic foundation, great name, many famous old boys. But' - I italicised darkly - 'there's something dreadful. You'd never believe it!'
Those pink ears twain under the black silk brim grew yet a shade pinker. Concealing a smile, my passenger played up nobly.
'Really?' she said, with just the right shade of polite surprise. 'I've always thought...' trailing away into nothingness, just like that.
I leaned forward, and spoke in a rattling whistper which the libeller could hardly miss: 'Their First Eleven bowl's under-arm!'[2]
'NO??!!' said Millie, registering horror.
'I've seen them,' as one who lets the truth be wrung from him.
Top-hat had gone the colour of a new cricket ball.
'Not the remove, mind you,' I added, judging him that high. 'The First E-le-ven!'
We let it go at that, but the silence while I put my tools away was more than eloquent. I saw his eye fall on our badge, the insignia of a public school motor cycling club which has a reputation, but not for sloth. His little heart was bursting to repel my foul insinuation, but pride and the memory of the fact that he had provoked the jousts forbade it.

I trod on Bucephalus's [3] kick-starter, and she burst into life with that exultant bellow which is all her own, descending on a control into a hollow mutter which suggests the confidences of a mastodon.
He came round into the road; he had to. Those impish blue eyes opened at the sight of our big, black iron lungs, and looked on interrogation almost wistful.
'Five Hundred Mile race type,' I explained, mercifully. 'One of LeVack's special jobs. Sixty easy.'
The look changed to positive reverence. 'I didn't mean,' he blurted, as the clutch snuggled home. 'Nor did we,' I laughed back at him.
'Floreat Aetona!' "

[1]: Clearly, the reference is to a Royal Enfield v-twin of mid-20s vintage, as per the photo; the story is dated by reference later to Herbert LeVack as being from the late 1920s.

[2]: What follows is a dark discussion of Cricket, a game which is a complete mystery to me, but the meaning of the conversation is clear!

[3]: Alexander the Great's horse, Bucephalus, the stuff of legend for his strength, endurance, steadfastness in battle, and intelligence.
It was common for riders of Great Machines to name their motorcycles in the prewar era (in England at least). One thinks of T.E. Lawrence's Brough Superiors, named initially 'Boanerges' (the twin 'sons of thunder'), and later models 'George I-VII'.

In our age of disposable motorcycles, it's difficult to imagine the relationship which existed between man and motorcycle at that time. The beast needed the attention of its owner to give its best, then as now, a symbiosis which generated feelings of affection, and frustration or outright betrayal at times, when the old girl let you down.

You can really feel the Life in motorcycles from the Vintage era, with their smells, wheezes, sulks, coughs, 'petulant choofs', and mighty, inspiring roars when all is going well. A name is fitting.