Till the Wheels Fall Off
A man is like a rusty wheel,
On a rusty cart,
Sings his song as he rattles along,
And then he falls apart.
- We'll Sing Hallelujah - Richard & Linda Thompson, 1974
As far as these things go, I wouldn’t say that I am an avid subscriber to the laws of Witchcraft.
Sure, I dig the mysticism, cool iconography, and pagan grooviness of it, though to be honest, I wouldn’t say I believe in much of anything when it really comes down to it…I’m no nihilist either, don’t get me wrong, its just that when things are that much bigger than the limits of my comprehension for each day, they tend to get pushed out to the hinterlands of my brain, and rarely dealt with on any sort of coherent level, so I never get around to believing in anything in particular. Just existence, as I know it, trying to make the most of it as it comes along…
Having said that, things; inanimate objects, and old, inanimate things in particular often seem (to me at least) to have some sort of life force all of there own, above & beyond the meagre sum of their parts. How many times have you been convinced that some sort of gypsy curse has been placed on some piece of shit machinery that you own, which is steadfastly refusing to do the very thing that it is supposed to do?
I don’t think that I, in my inexperience and lack of know-how regarding these things, am entirely alone in this school of thought either. I remember a story this geezer I know told me once about some phantom Panhead troubles he experienced. Now, this fella is no novice, nothing could be further from the truth; he’s got a palatial garage, jam packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful machines of all shapes and sizes, where he spends his days chain smoking hashish and fabricating bike bits for the big red machine round this way. I remember him telling me this tale of getting ready to take his sweet Panhead out for a blast one day, and kicking and kicking and kicking some more, until he couldn’t kick no more, the stubborn mule forcing him to fuck it off as a bad job. Sweating and swearing, he stumbled over to the back of his garage to retrieve a beer to drain, whilst dwelling on the bolshie brute which had defeated him, and on his way back out, he happened to brush past the stoic bike, which somehow caused the bastard to roar into life, scaring the shit out of our man, and causing him to spill his beer all over the shop. I wasn’t there, but I can well believe such a thing happened, and has happened many moons over again.
Recently, I heard tale of a chicken run of BSA Bantams strutting down to the Ace Café in London, which proved more than enough of an excuse to drop whatever other plans I had on that weekend, saddle up and ride the ol’ girl on down there.
In order to try and avoid any hexes, curses or bad joo-joo befouling me, I even set about sorting my bike out for the journey, making sure the fix-job I’d done to hold the previously slipping points in place was holding, replacing the wire coat-hanger that I’d bent into an ad-hoc rear-break lever with the proper item, replacing the blown brake bulb and heavily worn rear break pads and fitting a new rear tyre in place of the old, cracking Avon which had probably been on there for the past hundred years or so. And though the breaks still didn’t actually stop the bike, they do something, which was a vast improvement over the nothing, which was their previous function.
Saturday morning came around, clearish and crisp, and bundled up in most of my coats (what a difference a few weeks at the arse end of an English summer makes…I was riding in a t-shirt a few weeks previous back from The Trip Out) I set off southwards, the route to London taped across my petrol tank in lieu of an A-Z or a sat-nav and that slightly giddy and expectant feeling that the start of a longish trip always conjures up, creaking away down in the depths of my guts.
Clearing the weekend town traffic, paddy wagons and twats in 4x4’s and getting out into the wide open country, I settled into the murmur and hum of an old British single doing its thing, letting my mind unravel and runaway ahead of me, across the clear b-roads and the browning fields; mostly emptied and turning fallow for the season.
For me, on that particular morning at least, the riding was IT, man, the essence…letting the miles and scenery and smells wash over you, the destination, or purpose for the trip almost entirely disintegrates away into insignificance, and it’s a good thing I had a vague route taped to my tank, to keep me grounded in some sort of reality and stop me from disappearing off into rural England somewhere, never to return.
By the halfway point, somewhere in southern Northamptonshire, the bike backfired a couple of times and promptly died, due to a spark plug that had worked loose, whiskering itself in the process. It was a welcome stop as it goes, as I was bloody freezing and dieing for a piss, though oddly I only noticed either of those things once off the bike, both ailments getting sorted care of a convenient greasy spoon.
Warmed, watered, emptied again and back on my way, the Bantam clipped along happily enough at 50mph, which considering the brakes (or lack of) is plenty enough to watch the countryside slip by and keep me happily daydreaming in forward momentum.
As I hit Bedford town centre, the bike began to sound different, lumpy somehow and unresponsive to the throttle’s commands. Complacency breed’s contempt as the self-righteous say, and I could feel the contempt emanating from the cars stuck behind me as I stuttered and spluttered across several lanes of traffic, creaking off the thoroughfare into the car park of a doctors surgery in a haze of burning 2-stroke.
Keeping the engine ticking over, I began to hunt for this latest imp to come fucking with me, and swiftly found him in the form an absent screw, gone awol from the Amal carb body, which should keep the throttle-slide from spinning freely in its hole. Not to bore, nor drown in the details, it turns out you can fix a missing slide-locating screw with the tip cut off of a cable-tie, some blue-tac and some minor witchcraft of your own, and before too long, tools and magic charms packed away, I was back out amongst the four-wheelers, on the A-roads, speeding towards the bright lights and gold-paved streets of the big city.
I was at least, until passing through a town called Hitchin, some 30-odd miles north of the big smoke when a terrible clunking sound, much like an abattoir full of metal chickens dying swiftly, and a distinct lack of forward momentum signified some new kind of hell, in the form of a final drive sprocket which had sheared itself clean off of its pressed steel-hub. Something’s you can fix, and something’s fix you, and with all the garages closed for evening/weekend and a chilly October evening falling rapidly, in a fix I certainly seemed to be.
I mulled over the possibilities as the dusk crept steadily closer; I wandered around vainly trying to find a garage which might have been open late for some reason, I called a friend In London to see if he knew anyone with a van and a sense of adventure? I sat on the curb and came up with unlikely fix scenarios, which wouldn’t have worked in a million years, even if I could have unearthed the tools at that late hour to implement them. Then, as is often the case lately, I rang my long-suffering better half and told her what had happened, and she reminded me that I probably had breakdown recovery as part of my insurance…I told her I doubted it, as I went for the cheapest deal I could find, and doubt it actually covered me for anything at all…’hold on a sec…’ she said, and moments later, thanks to the modern day witchcraft of the internet, I was proved wrong and soon had a breakdown van on route towards Hitchin.
Whilst waiting on the van, two cockney wide boys sidled over to the cursed D3 and began nosing around, reminiscing about one of their cousin’s, Clive, who’d had a Bantam back in the day. They hadn’t clocked me sitting there in the shadows, and I kept quiet whilst their conversation turned increasingly dark, as apparently Clive had come a cropper whilst out on his scoot and had ended up under the wheels of a London bus back in 1970-something. Just as I was beginning to feel uncomfortable at inadvertently eavesdropping on this tender and random moment, the guy doing most of the talking noticed me, and called me over to the bike. “You alright, kid, you come a cropper…?” he asked, gruffly, and I explained my own tale of woe, which paled mightily in comparison to his. Once satisfied that I was okay, he coyly, shyly even, asked me to “kick ‘er over…for old time’s sakes, like” and not wanting to disappoint, I turned the petrol tap back on and tickled the carb whilst the smaller, quieter of the two men gave a running commentary of what I was doing; “he’s priming it now, kid…should start second kick I reckon…”
‘It fucking better had’ I thought to myself, and mercifully it started right up on the first. If the bike starting first kick mildly surprised me, that was nothing compared to the shock of the larger of the two suddenly bursting into tears at the sound of the small engine put-put-putting away. I guess the noise and smell of the premix had jogged some nerve in the recesses of his soul, and brought Clive’s final days flooding back in sharp focus. Wiping the tears away from his eyes, he extended a massive hand out in a handshake, and when I responded, he grabbed me in some sort of cockney bear hug…”fuckin’ blindin’, son…blindin’…’” he muttered, before setting me down and inviting me to a gig that their mate’s band were playing that night in Hitchin, which they were in town to handle the doors for. (The Black Dogs live at Hitchin F.C. …sound a bit like AC/DC apparently.)
I never got to take the likely lads up on their invitation, as not long after they left for the football club, the breakdown van turned up and spirited the broken Bantam away, back up north to Nottingham. It seemed entirely redundant to me to have spent most of the day riding 120-odd miles down the country, to then ride straight back up in the tedious comfort and warmth of a heated Ford Transit, so I bid my bike so-long and jumped a train (no conductors around late in the evening) the rest of the way to t’smoke.
Once there, I hooked up with some good friends, got righteously stoned, chatted copious amounts of bullshit, passed out, woke up, played ping-pong, walked about a million miles across London, saw the most drunk man in the whole world take a swing at his missus, miss completely and fall flat on his face, splitting his melon wide open, before spending hours trying to find the on-ramp for the M1 in order to hitch back home. Failing to find the motorway completely (lord knows I tried, some places you just can’t seem to walk to), I inadvertently and quite accidentally scored a ride home on a passing National Express bus, which took me almost to my front door. “You ain’t got a ticket?” asked the driver, somewhat incredulously, having stopped for my outstretched thumb, “no, I was trying to hitch” I answered, in all honesty. “Well, it’ll cost ya 25 quid” the driver said, “I’ve got ten” I replied, also truthfully. “That’ll do!” our man said, pocketing my last note.
Back home, in addition to finding a replacement rear hub/wheel for a fifty-five year old bike, I think I’m gonna first try and find me a local witch to put some sort of good luck charm/curse on that god-forsaken bike of mine.
Maybe next time I’ll make it to the Ace Café?