This is a blog about the joys of owning, riding, maintaining, falling off, talking about, and wandering around muddy fields looking at MOTORCYCLES by a die-hard, old school biker. Yes folks, I’ve been doing this to myself – in all weathers – since I was 15 years old. I’ll be 57 this March so that’s what… about 70% of my life and the most constant thing in it. Now I’m half deaf with permanent tinnitus (should’ve worn earplugs), the screws in my knees have gone, and I have arthritis in my hands, arms and neck… but, if I had all the money I’ve ever spent on bikes, I’d spend it on bikes.
This is not however a blog about all the technical stuff. I’m a decent home mechanic, and I’ve kept a small classic fleet running as everyday transport since the early-80s, often on a painfully low budget, but I’m no engineer and I’m certainly not a restorer. Obviously, there’ll be the odd reference to fixing things, but I’ll leave the guides to the experts. As well as riding, what really interests me is the motorcycle – and the biker – in popular culture. As a kid, I got into the life as much because of movies and pulp novels as I did coveting the style of the ton-up boys I saw on the roads. And be honest, wasn’t it the same for you? So, this is more about the experience of being a life-long biker from the perspective of a dreamer and a cultural historian as much as a journeyman grease monkey.
I really am a professor, but the nickname oddly came from way, way back when I was a little teenage grebo hanging around the local biker pub in the 1970s, kindly tolerated by the proper road warriors, probably because I always had a line on some good drugs. I was well-read for a council estate kid, a bit of a maven, and my speed-eyed monologues on old movies, music, biker history, and politics earned me the epithet ‘Prof’, of which I was quite proud. They may even have put the seed of ambition into me, later developed through meeting the middle-class students that were also part of the provincial ‘alternative’ scene of ageing hippies, punks, goths, crusties, and bike clubs, all uneasily united by drug culture, unemployment, free festivals, and a shared hatred of skinheads and Margaret Thatcher. Also, not being able to play guitar or kick a football, I realised quite early on that education was going to be my way out.
Anyway, in one of my last UK academic gigs before I ‘retired’, ‘went into the private sector’, got made redundant without a final salary pension (long story) – I vary the reason depending on how well I know the listener, but I’m giving you all three – I was awarded a generous research grant to study ‘The biker in film, fiction and fashion’. This was with a view to producing a book provisionally entitled The Devil Rides a Norton Commando, playing on the old ‘Jesus Rides a Harley’ T-shirt and my favourite British biker horror stories, the NEL paperback The Bike from Hell by Alex Stuart and the movie I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle. I started spending my grant on books and rare DVDs and interviewed some local legends, writing the first three chapters. Then I got the bullet, and the project went on hold, indefinitely as it turned out. I mean, you’ve got to make a living, ain’t ya? And as far as actually selling my writing goes, my ticket to ride has always been Victorian literary and ‘outsider’ history. That’s what I’m known for. (In fact, as the guy who secured my funding for the biker project was on the way out as well, I often wonder if he gave my wacky pitch the money just to piss off management…)
I never forgot this project though. I still love and collect biker movies and read the relevant cultural studies and popular histories. And through the current pandemic (me and the boy are ‘high risk’ and our family’s been self-isolating since last March), it’s been the bikes that have kept me sane. I’ve not done much riding, but I’ve rebuilt my BSA and finally started ‘restoring’ (bobbing) my BMW, which has been dead and rotting away for nigh on 20 years. Every night after work (I can work from home as a hack), and most weekends, I’m in the workshop painting, rewiring, and working on engines, with support from my kid. He isn’t that bothered about the bikes; he just likes hanging out, and we listen to music and talk shite (mostly about movies) while he passes me the odd tool. (Only January has defeated us, because it’s too bloody cold out there to hold a spanner. We retreated into video game binges instead.) Not being able to ride during lockdowns, or go near any cafes, shows or gatherings when I do go for a run, has made old bike movies, books and games like Road Redemption even more essential to my soul. With this in mind, and because I can’t go out, I thought I might finally get down to writing about bikes again. I already blog, but this subject didn’t fit the others, which are devoted to literature, history and creative writing. (To get an idea of what I do, if you care, all of these can be accessed through my website.) This one is much more personal.
So, the plan here is to write about the biker in popular culture, in an accessible (non-academic, don’t worry) way, with retrospective reviews and recommendations, sometimes on genre classics, sometimes more obscure sources. There’ll also be some life writing, and I’m hoping I can get some other bikers to contribute some of their own stories, especially how they got into bikes in the first place, and what and why they ride. (So if you’re interested in getting involved, please drop me a line.) I’ll also be sharing a lot of old photos of the old gang! Basically, if you want to read about the time I rode a 1960 BSA from Norwich to Edinburgh in one night when I was a kid – and all the attendant disasters that befell me – or fancy a history of the leather jacket, 1970s ‘Hell’s Angel’ paperbacks or the cultural significance of ‘Leader of the Pack’, as well as reviews of movies like Once a Jolly Swagman, She Devils on Wheels or Burn Out, then this is the place. If, on the other hand, you need to know how to change the brake pads on your Ducati, then scroll on by.
Either way, thanks for looking. And remember, Ride Hard or Stay Home.
All the Best