Rusty Rider

Rusty rider – that’s me – or rather that was me. In February of this year I decided it was time to test my nerve after being away from motorcycling for the best part of 30 years. So I enrolled myself on a one day course – called “Rusty Rider” to see just how safe, or unsafe, I would be getting back on two wheels on public roads.

I’m not sure who was more surprised – my instructor or me – as, in the safety of the car park, I quickly mastered riding one of their 600cc bikes at walking pace, making figure of eight manoeuvres and stopping at a designated point. That took ten minutes, and then we were ready to take on the Cambridgeshire roads. Motorcycles have changed a great deal over the last few years, they are bigger, more powerful and full of gadgets. However, the feeling of freedom on two wheels is unchanged and I enjoyed every second of being back on a bike, even on a rain-soaked day.

Having completed my course I was ready to think about buying my new bike. No shortage of opinions from my friends on social media, some are Harley Davidson fans, others prefer Triumph, Italian bikes appeal to those who like sophistication, and BMW’s have their own loyal fan base. So taking all these opinions into account, and having read just about every motorcycle magazine and review of new bikes available, I settled on 6 to choose from – two Harley’s, two Triumph’s and two BMW’s. Motorcycling though, despite the fact that you are on two wheels on your own, is not a solitary past time – so I was going to need some company on test day.

Enter Andy. I hadn’t seen Andy since before I gave up motorcycling. We’d connected on Facebook a while ago, but the motorcycle discussion had reignited an old relationship. Andy and I had been school friends – I guess we were ‘best friends’ back in 1974-1979. We quickly set about organising a test schedule, and after a few rainy delays we finally got our day, and if either of us was apprehensive about meeting up again after so long it didn’t show. We ended up riding eight bikes in eight hours, stopping to swap and exchange opinions. We had a lot of fun!

Unlike me Andy has kept riding over the years, so having such an experienced rider for company was reassuring, he also knows the Cambridgeshire road network better than me (a legacy from his career in the local constabulary), so we were able to put the bikes through their paces on a variety of routes. I followed Andy, feeling safe with his traffic awareness, and copying his well honed road craft. Echoes of our old school life, when we stuck together in friendship and for safety. Our school didn’t have the best of reputations and had a real bullying problem; Andy and I, with a few others, developed a safety in numbers approach to protect ourselves against the more violent pupils. As Andy put it when we first met up again, “we survived secondary school”. Sticking together so closely back then did have other advantages – we won the school badminton doubles championship, and went on the represent the school at county level. We were widely acknowledged as the best opening pair in the cricket team. Those reputations, founded on our understanding of each other, were important to us, and helped us develop our own “school road craft”.

The shiny chrome of the new Triumph Thunderbird was more impressive than the ride quality. Photograph courtesy of Andy Nightingale ©

The shiny chrome of the new Triumph Thunderbird was more impressive than the ride quality. Photograph courtesy of Andy Nightingale ©


Old passions rarely die, and old friendships – once rekindled – can play an important part in our ‘later lives’ – those shared experiences from the 1970s, as well as new shared experiences, create bonds that can’t be summed up in a simple essay. They are reassuring and, despite the intervening years, have an air of constancy. I am looking forward to riding a motorcycle again, but more importantly I am looking forward to some tours with Andy, the formidable badminton champions of 1978 and the best opening bats in the cricket team finally reunited. We don’t need reputations now, we’ve both had good careers, happy marriages and have lovely families – that security has probably given us both the confidence to reconnect.

It sounds terribly clichéd, but I was determined to get the phrase into this article: getting back on a motorcycle has been like riding a bike, but more importantly so has rebuilding a friendship. I don’t feel quite so rusty at motorcycling or close friendships these days.


The bike I have chosen.

The bike I have chosen.



D-Day Dilemma


Last week and over the weekend the D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches in 1944 were commemorated in many ways. World leaders gathered to pay their respects and some seemed to want to be seen doing so, sadly some even using the occasion for political posturing. The media were everywhere. All a far cry from the horror of a world war and the death and destruction that was required to defeat Nazi Germany.

Old soldiers gathered respectfully, along with families and current day servicemen, in the Normandy towns, villages and on the beaches in remembrance of their fallen comrades and to make sure that, seventy years on, they are not forgotten. The number of veterans able to make this trip – for some an annual event – is ever dwindling. The youngest of those that remain are in their late 80’s and soon that generation will be lost to us, and their personal accounts will remain only in writing and recordings.

One such personal account that I heard on saturday morning put everything into stark contrast. I was stopped in my tracks by a radio interview with a gentleman by the name of Harold Nash on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Answers’. The moment that I heard this man start to speak I knew that he was speaking with experience and authority, even though he is ninety years old. The presenter of the programme was stopped in her tracks too, finding it very difficult to move on to a more mundane item after having heard such wisdom from one of the most profound interviews she is likely ever to do. She said “it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up”. Just as it did for many, like me, who were listening. The radio station was inundated with calls and messages not just in support of Mr Nashs’ views but with respect for his gently spoken words reminding us of the futility of war and killing, the dilemma of how to commemorate, and a reminder that the only justification there can ever be for war is the pursuit of peace.

Harold’s challenge to us all is to think more about how we remember those that fought in such dreadful circumstances. The rattling of sabres – the military shows and parades, the drills with bayonets fixed to rifles, the shooting of rifles and guns in salute – to Harold are inconsistent with what he and his comrades risked their lives for. The celebration of killing other human beings, and the tools used for doing so, is for Harold,  not in keeping with why he fought. Harold fought to bring an end to the war. Harold fought so that future generations would know peace.

As Harold recounted part of his own story the humility of such a brave and honest man shone through. He talked of himself as being a coward during the war – because he was afraid. He talked of being humbled when in occupied territory as he was offered bread by those ordinary people who earlier he would have been bombing and trying to kill. He quoted Albert Schweitzer. He talked of governments being unable to think his way, and that they may not see the inappropriateness of a celebration of killing,  which he understood; but having heard him perhaps governments should think like Harold. He talked of understanding why some seek to remember with pomp and circumstance. And all the time he talked, it was with a voice that told the listener that this man knew right from wrong. This man knew the horrors of war. This man still carried regrets for the lives he had taken. This man did not want to be talked of as a hero.This man did not need the sight of marching soldiers to remember what happened seventy years ago. This man remembered his comrades every day. You sensed that Harold did his duty as he served as an RAF navigator, and fought with good reason – because he fought for peace and a return to normality. Tellingly, when he returned to civilian life it was as a teacher. As I listened to him I couldn’t help but think what a great teacher he must have been. What must it have been like being taught by this emotionally intelligent, caring and insightful human being?

With such wisdom, listening to Harold may lead some to wonder why, in this modern era, we do not heed our elders more. Why do we not learn more from their experiences? Are we so intent on getting everything done so much faster with the latest technology that we have lost the ability to listen, reflect and learn? What if we were to seek advice on some of our bigger life decisions from our elders who have been through it all before? Would we find such counsel helpful or would we be too impatient to listen and reflect? When I recall some of the best advice I have ever had, it has almost always been from someone older than me, someone with more experience, someone with a perspective that I lack. What if our town councils had a council of elders to turn to for advice, insight and perspective? But so many in today’s world are content to go headstrong and headlong into the next crisis, the next drama, the next scandal, the next debacle, and to execute the next ill-conceived strategy. To pause, reflect and consider wisely is the gift of few. It is those few, the Harold’s of our communities, that should be given air time, not sound bite politicians, not fame seekers, not headline seeking investigative journalists. We need more Harolds.

The interview with Mr Nash is still available on the Radio 4 website here: I urge you to listen to it  while, and if, you can. The interview starts at around 2 minutes into the programme.




I Believe in Fairies

We don’t have that many watershed moments in our lives, those moments that change everything forever. April 24th 2014 was one of mine. That’s the day that my mother died. She died suddenly and unexpectedly. I wasn’t ready for it. I don’t think she was either. I miss her. I miss her voice, I miss her argumentative nature, I miss her occasional spoonerisms, I miss her wit, but most of all I miss her laughter. My mum taught me much, she taught me tenacity, she taught me the value of hard work, she taught me to fight against those who said I ‘couldn’t’, she taught me to be fierce but also when to back down gracefully (though to be fair we both found that last one a challenge). I see that self same tenacity and work ethic in my own son – overcoming his dyslexia to become an intelligent and able student. We passed it on, mum.

It’s a watershed because I have started to write again, the emotions of the last few weeks needing an outlet. I started to write stories and poems ‘proper’ when I was nine years old. That was mums doing – with little education herself she still spotted my love of, and perhaps a little talent for, writing and language. She encouraged me, took me to see Shakespearean plays, and helped me choose which authors to read based on my emerging tastes. I read, or was read to, every day of my childhood, my room was a bookcase, a bedroom-cum-library. Mum learned with me as I read more and more, and we discussed everything from the great poets to the popular authors of my childhood. We learned together. At ten years old I was published in a local poetry anthology for children. I won a prize for it – it was a gift token – I bought a book. I’ve been buying books ever since, there isn’t a room in our house without a bookcase – we have nine of them I think, some with books double stacked, plus around a dozen boxes of books in the attic. I still read a great deal, and discuss the great poets and authors of our time with my daughter – I learn as she learns. We passed it on, mum.

It is a watershed, because now I have to face the rest of my life with all of those things she was as just memories; we can’t reminisce on those old shared experiences ever again. Mum and I didn’t see each other every week, nor even every month, but her influences were always there. We had our differences, sometimes heated ones, but we shared that unique mother/son bond as well as that unique mother/first born bond. We were special to each other in a way words couldn’t describe, if we fell out we would both be tearful. It’s a watershed, because at fifty years old I finally have to grow up. Mum’s not there to talk to now, not there to counsel, or to debate, argue and disagree with, she’s not there to be the arbiter of family disagreements. I’m the grown up now. I don’t want to grow up. Not yet.

But as I was writing I realised  that part of my mums enduring charm and spirit was that she never truly grew up. She could, of course, act grown up when convention dictated. But she never yielded to having to fully grow up. She still did the things that she wanted to do, the way she wanted to do them, no matter if they seemed childish or even a little foolish to others. Thats what made her so creative. On the day that she died she had been teaching herself to paint with water colours. She painted fairies. She loved fairies and truly believed that they existed, which seems quite childlike, and perhaps it is – but that’s the point of refusing to grow up isn’t it? – to still look at things with a childish wonder and to believe in the fantastical  – and that captures the essence of my mum, her readiness to see things as a child might.

I have a lot to thank my mum for; for passing on the gifts of tenacity and doggedness, thanks for passing on the gift of literary exploration, but most of all thanks for not growing up, thanks for showing me that you don’t have to grow up in everything. Thanks for believing in fairies. Perhaps if I believe in fairies too this watershed won’t be so bad. I believe in fairies.