Sunday, September 10, 2006
Driving used to be a pleasure.
Right now I'm inching forward in first gear, watching the tail lights of the car in front flicker on and off, tasting the traffic fumes like bitter porridge, steaming in this damp, heavy heat, seeing yet another red light up ahead, yet another set of road works, waiting, waiting - moving - waiting. Where's the pleasure now?
And then the motorbikes are skimming by, dodging through the traffic, weaving in and out with uncanny agility, and I'm watching them with a combination of resignation and faint resentment, watching them move up to the front of the jam. And then they're off when the lights change - like that! - with a snarl or a growl, off into the distance. That's when it strikes me. Driving to them - or riding, rather - is still a pleasure.
I'm on my way to the Ace Cafe on the old North Circular Road, just off Hangar Lane in Stonebridge, London. Back in the '50s and '60s the Ace was the archetypal biker caff. On a Saturday evening thousands would turn up here, from all over. They'd sit around in the steamy cafe and drink tea and smoke fags. Or they'd be hanging around in the car-park, "shooting the breeze", talking about bikes usually, offering advice, asking questions, bragging, joshing, having fun. And then there were the races. West to Hangar Lane and back. Or East to what was then the Neasden roundabout (it's an underpass now), doing the ton along the S-bends through the iron bridges. A lot of bikers were killed. Only they weren't called bikers then. They weren't even called Rockers in the early days. They were "the Lads".
The Ace closed down in 1969. It was the end of an era. Young people could afford cars now. Why ride around on a dirty old bike, when you can sit in comfort and listen to music? Or if you wanted a bike it was more likely to be Japanese. You don't wear black leather on a Japanese bike. You wear an all-in-one jump-suit, bright like an ice-cream sundae. The demise of the Ace cafe reflects the loss of interest in motorbikes as a means of transport and the decline of the British Motorcycle Industry. The few bikers left on the road, the old-fashioned sort - the die-hards - were seen as an anachronism, as faintly ludicrous somehow. Most of the Lads had settled down. They had jobs, wives, mortgages. They drove whatever cars they could afford, to work and back. After that the cafe building had a variety of other uses. Recently it was a tyre place. But since December 1997 it's been the Ace Cafe again, once more a hangout for bikers.
In 1960 there were 1.5million registered motorcycles on the road, but by the mid 1990s that figure had fallen to it’s lowest point ever: to 594,000. Since then the figures have been rising again.
1998 saw the highest motorcycle sales for 12 years. In all, 120,416 bikes were sold that year, a 36% rise over the previous year. By 2003 the number of bikes veering and swerving along British roads had risen to over 1 million. Biking is back, and in a big way. More teenagers are riding bikes. More women. More young men. And - less surprisingly perhaps - more older men too, men in their forties or fifties, greying, balding, going back to biking after all these years, or taking to bikes for the first time, looking for something "out-there" they no longer find in their ordinary lives. These are the "born-again" bikers. A phenomenon.
I pull into the side road next door to the Ace. I don't want to risk trying to park up in the car-park. Too many bikes. Rows and rows of them, gleaming in the sunlight. Every kind of bike. Old British bikes - Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs - lovingly restored, gorgeously polished. BMWs, all growling efficiency. Trikes. These are customised monsters, really cut-down cars with handlebars instead of a steering wheel. Harley-Davidsons, with their distinctive, low-slung shape, the epitome of American cool. Japanese bikes. The other riders call these "plastic rockets" or "plastic missiles". The British bike owners call them "Jap Scrap". Which is ironical given that these bikes always were more efficient - faster and more reliable - than their British equivalents. Hence the demise of the British Motorcycle Industry.
I must admit I'm intimidated at first. What am I doing here, pulling up in a car? I know nothing about bikes. And bikers always had a certain reputation. Well they just look hard in all that black leather. I quickly get out and cross the forecourt to get a cup of tea. Then I sit down outside hoping that as few of them as possible have seen the connection. I'm trying to deny all responsibility for that nondescript vehicle parked up in the alleyway nearby.
There's a middle aged couple just arrived. The woman sits down and pulls off her jacket, but she's still got her leather trousers on. It's blazing hot and you can almost see her legs melting.
Later I'm sitting indoors cooling off, when a kind-faced old chap comes in to pick up his leathers. He's talking about his bike. He's saying it's no good on the motorway. "It was designed for the North Circular," he says. "It only wants to go at fifty-five. I can push it up to eighty, for overtaking. But then I have to keep listening to it to make sure nothing has broken."
I say, "do you come here every week?"
"Yes," he said, "of course. The wife knows it's my drug. Luckily I've done a lot of work this week, putting up shelves, so she didn't mind me coming out. But she knows I couldn't live without it."
And then he's wrapping the white silk scarf around his neck and pulling on his helmet, pressing in all the studs on his heavy-weight jacket up to his neck, slipping the goggles over his eyes. Anonymous. From a kindly old chap to a deadly-looking biker with the aid of a few studs.
Outside the bikers are posing about. It's part of the scene. There's a couple of young Rockers with their Triumphs. They can't be much more than twenty years old, but they've got the Rocker style off to a tee. Slicked back hair with a quiff. White tee shirt. Key chain hanging from their belts, and the obligatory handkerchief tucked into the back pocket. Most of the Rocker style has a practical basis. The handkerchief is there so you can wipe your hands after fiddling with your bike.
Later I'm talking to Colin. He's in his forties, perhaps, with close cropped, thinning hair. Without his leathers he doesn't look at all like a biker. He looks like a shop keeper. Which is what he is, in fact. He owns a shoe shop.
He rides a Harley-Davidson. He's been riding for about a year now, which makes him a true born-again. I say, "so what is it about bikes?"
"That's easy," he says, with a certain sparkle. "Got rid of the wife. Bought a bike."
I want to know why he rides a Harley. "It's the old posing thing," he says. "The louder the better. People turn round with a Harley. And women like 'em too. Loads of birds."
Meanwhile the young Rockers are set to go. They've got their girls with them, also dressed in fifties style, but with added twenty-first century accoutrements, like nose-studs. They're pulling on their helmets, fastening their jackets. Part of the ritual. And then they kick start the bikes and there's a juddering roar. The girls climb up on pillion (some things don't change) and they're off. Now I understand where the expression "just for kicks" comes from. Kick starting the bike is the prelude to the fun.
And then I speak to Womble. He's a proper old biker, shaved head and shades, leather jerkin and grease-stained jeans. "Third generation biker," he says. "My Dad was a Rocker. Mind you, I can't get him down here. I even offered to drive. He won't leave the East End anymore."
Mark, the proprietor comes up, collecting empty cups. Mark is a Rocker, with all the gear. Slicked back hair and sleeveless jacket. He says, "I'm doing my waitressing bit."
"So where's your pinnie?" asks Womble.
"I save that for the bedroom."
"Yes. That's what I'd heard," quips Womble, archly.
And they both laugh.
There's a couple of trikes pulling in. One of them is a cut-down VW driven by a middle-aged geezer with a pony-tail, wearing a camouflage jump suit. No helmet. You don't have to wear a helmet with a trike. He's in his fifties at least. Bikers can get away with anything, it seems, and it doesn't matter how old you are.
His name is Dave.
His trike is a work-of-art, electric blue with glistening chrome. And the sound! A nasal grumble, like a deep-hearted growl in the bowels of the Earth.
Dave is the laid-back sort of biker. Easy-rider rather than the Wild One, with a neat goatee and grey hair. Very calm and clear-eyed.
I said, "what do you call yourself? Are you a biker?"
"Not by profession," he said.
Said he'd been a biker in his youth. Started in '59 or '60, but sold his last bike in '65. After that it was the mortgage thing. Wife, kids, job. (He's a surveyor). But then he'd taken to bikes again ten years ago. So he's not-quite born-again anymore. I asked him what it was about biking.
"It's the camaraderie," he said. "You meet some really nice people on a bike. If you're anywhere on the side of the road and a bike goes by, nine times out of ten he'll stop to see if you're all right. You don't get that with car drivers. It's also a cowboy thing. Like you're an outcast, riding off into the sunset."
He's a member of the N----riders Motorcycle Club. Most bikers belong to one club or another. (Womble is a Celtic Warrior.) And that's maybe where the strongest appeal lies. Riding off in a pack to some long weekend, hundreds and hundreds of bikes. The roar of the engines. The hiss of the road. Dave was talking about a cafe he used to go to, on the road to Margate. "There was a dip in the road, so you'd hear this roar before you saw the bikes. And then it was like the Ghengis Khan hordes coming out of the East. And you could be part of that."
Anyway, back to the conversation with Womble. He tells me a story about his 8 year old daughter, how they were at a rally, and she was sitting up by the fire. It was very late, and someone came up to talk to her.
"Does your dad know your up this late?" he said. "Only if you was my daughter I'd be worried about you."
"But these are all bikers," she said, indicating around. "I'm safe with bikers. They'll look after me."
"I nearly cried when I heard that," says Womble.