Roller Skates to Rolls-Royce
The Story of a Young Man’s Progress
Barry Michael Murphy
7 October 1938 – 15 August 2011
Copyright © 2012 by Mary Murphy
Before there were any bicycle stories to be told, my life was mainly restricted to playing outside in the street. In suitable weather a trusty companion and I would sit on top of one of two, tall dark green, electric transformer boxes, situated on the corner of Merlin Road and Hook Lane in Welling, Kent. These conveniently placed objects served as palisades, from where we fought off the constant attacks of Apache, Crow and Blackfoot. Other times we sailed the seven seas, high up in the crows-nest, on the lookout for Spanish galleons, ripe for the plundering. But more often than not it was Germans. We hated Germans, the Luftwaffe lost squadrons of aircraft to our effective, anti-aircraft position, divisions of tanks fell to our superior armament and more than one battleship was sunk to the seabed with all hands lost. We saved Britain daily (though peevishly we received no recognition for our services from His Majesty’s Government) and it was little wonder that the Germans came back nightly, attempting to destroy our position while I, my older sister, Mum and Dad slept in our Anderson shelter, 6 ft. 6 inches long by 4 ft. 6 inches wide, and he, with his family not far away, slept in theirs.
Each morning we found shrapnel scattered all around our streets, but the green transformer boxes, luckily for Britain, never took a direct hit.
The war offered up some nice surprises, not the least in an abandoned shed at the back of an empty, bombed-out house; a single roller-skate. Two would have been all the nicer, though this single skate still offered the prospect of wheeled transport, albeit of a rudimentary nature. With a piece of wood wide enough and long enough to sit on, you could mount it to your roller skate, using nails or woodscrews, and, with the aid of any of the steep roads that ran downhill, north, towards your own, you could travel a couple of hundred yards very quickly, seated on your skate-board, legs stuck firmly out in front for balance. With practice you could lean and negotiate corners, you might even perform what was known locally as ‘Little man’. ‘Little man’ was to stand on your board, then squatting down as low as possible manoeuvre at speed. In and around our street this was considered a great achievement, one fraught with danger. Many were the grazed elbows and knees suffered in attempts to achieve “Little man”.
My first experience of transportation by bicycle was accompanying Keith Chapman, a boy from two doors away whose grandmother, living between us, had given him her deceased husband’s, sit up and beg roadster. This bicycle was considerably too large for him, but with the aid of the tall curbs in our road he could, with a high leg swing, somehow get onto it. Initially I would run alongside, greatly admiring his new achievement. Soon, following his early solo riding, Keith, a tough friend who regularly protected me from school bullies and small, biting dogs, invited me aboard to ‘ride the crossbar’. Though officially an illegal act, this naturally just added to the excitement of our journeys.
From trips around nearby streets we soon ventured to the wilds of Danson Park, a journey that took us a full quarter of a mile down our road. Here, bicycles were not permitted, except for the use of the patrolling, brown uniformed park keepers. These ‘Parkies’, as we knew them, would, on seeing us flaunting the rules, ride vigorously in pursuit on their big, heavy bikes. We prolonged the thrill of the chase for as long as possible, yelling insults over our shoulders; always sound in our conviction that no ‘Parky’ was ever a match for Keith Chapman, a stocky lad who, with his strong legs and lungs, would later excel at football and other sports. Even with a passenger on the crossbar he could, with ease, leave them all behind.
Eventually we ventured by this method of transportation as far as Footscray, some three or four miles distant, gathering conkers from under some particularly fruitful Horse Chestnut trees growing there. I was carried home on the crossbar, my arms aching from the weight of a pillowcase full of bright brown conkers, (enough for many hundreds of conker fights, with some left over to bake and marinate in vinegar for more serious combat), and my backside fairly screaming for relief from sitting for all those miles on a small diameter steel tube. Keith did not suffer in this manner, as his short, stocky legs would never even allow him the luxury of being seated at all, when pedalling. All this freedom to explore new places made me desire a bicycle of my very own and at age ten I purchased my first real bike, one on which you could actually travel to far flung places in relative comfort..
Just prior to this event I had my first and only riding lesson, given to me by a new group of friends living in the same road as my grandparents in Morden, Surrey. For safety’s sake the lesson took place over the grass at their local park, Cannon Hill Common. Their ‘instruction’ consisted of no more than holding the bike upright, then pushing me off from a high, grassy rise, down towards the lake, some two hundred yards distant. In retrospect, I feel they were trying to give me a dip in the lake, but between my innocence and the little need of pedalling, I concentrated on steering, managing to travel a wide gentle arc, that avoided my plunging into the water. I was ready for bigger things.
My newly acquired bicycle was an old, pre-war, heavy roadster with rod operated brakes and sit up and beg handlebars and with handgrips of brown celluloid in a state of terminal decay, with cracks that chaffed and cut your hands. The much worn brake blocks actuated on the inside of the rim, doing little to slow one’s progress, though acting quite effectively in the removal of road grime, rust and what paint remained there. .
This first machine was sold to me by a school acquaintance, Norman Riddle, who, on the insistence of his mother, wished his name to be pronounced ‘Rid-del’ with a slight French affectation. This, she considered, rang with a little class and distinction. We, his schoolmates, with our south of the Thames accents had other ideas and delighted in compressing the name to a nasty, tight lipped short sound, that rhymed with “fidul”. Norman lived nearby on Bradenham Avenue, his house a third of the way up, from where I proudly walked my new treasure home to number 9 Merlin Road, having recompensed the previous owner the required ten shillings.
This fortune had been saved in a little, brass, round money box about two and a half inches tall and of a diameter to accept sixpenny pieces through a small horizontal slot in the side near the top. This cylindrical box also had two vertical slots, one each side, enabling a peek as to how your savings were rising - something I did on a very regular basis, several times a week in fact, despite my sixpence pocket money being paid once a week on Saturday mornings. This inclusion of viewing slots either side I now regard as a serious design fault - for the less strong willed among young savers could, with the aid of two pins and a degree of dexterity, easily winkle out their entire savings in less than thirty minutes.
In the unlikely event that anyone ever saved 40 sixpences; a full pound, the final coin would push a little spring catch where, Lo and Behold, off flew the brass cap, allowing at long last, the supreme luxury of holding this considerable sum in the palm of your hand. Alas ----- I never did enjoy the experience, at least not using entirely legal currency, but on many occasions did gain access to my savings by packing out the vacant space by using suitable sized plastic counters gleaned from the games’ cupboard. This action, however, left me always with a distinct feeling of weakness and inadequacy/ For the purchase of my bicycle I had saved 9 shillings in the little round container and what with a few three-penny bits and odd coppers I had the total amount.
A week later at Woolworth’s I spent a further sixpence pocket money on a tin of Valspar black enamel, the smallest sized tin they had, and just enough, I hoped, to coat the frame forks, mudguards and handlebars once over, with none saved for the wheel rims, (I already knew it wouldn’t last for more than six feet of braking). The wheels wobbled badly and I soon learned most of what one could learn about ball bearings and cones. The few ball bearings that remained were buried firmly in a thick brown sludge of petrified oil. Certainly none of these steel balls looked particularly round, rather, they resembled, in miniature, those models, shown later in science class of the various types of polygon. The adjustable cones that these few, lonely steel balls ran against were badly pitted and grooved. All in all, the mechanism seemed past any real hope of adjustment. Likewise, further inspection revealed a similar situation in the mysterious bottom bracket, ensuring there could be no prospect of adjustment here also. This wear allowed the pedal shaft to wobble rather badly. Each pedal crank arm was attached to this shaft with a tapered cotter pin and despite how hard one hammered in these pins or the exertion expended in tightening the worn, rounded over nuts retaining them, most of one’s efforts to propel the bicycle forward came to nothing. The pedal crank arms flopped around uselessly for a good part of each rotation.
The Valspar black enamel, so resplendent when newly applied, never dried in various places. Apparently, one should ‘remove all traces of oil and dirt prior to coating’, information revealed in my belated reading of the advice printed on the container’s directions. It being spring, a time when insects hatch in large quantities, my bicycle offered much the same attraction as would a mobile flypaper, quickly taking on a fluffy, flocked, appearance, but interesting all the same, offering to the enquiring mind of a young person an insight into the exciting world of entomology and the possibility of a further hobby.
I soon started adventures of travel that took me past the end of my road and with what reliability still lived on in my un-trusty steed I made it to Blackfen, a full mile away. Then, the following week I got to Sidcup, two miles away. In a matter of weeks I had, with the aid of a neighbour’s ordnance survey map, cycled out past Ruxley Corner and Swanley, and now teetered on top of Farningham Hill, where a wide spreading vista of Kent beckoned, real open country; offering all the adventure I could ask for.
Adventure, however, needs planning: the gathering of tools, purchasing of a puncture outfit and rain cape, preparation of sandwiches, and the wherewithal to purchase a large, six penny bottle of Tizer. This product could be obtained, nearby, at the ‘park sweet shop,’ an emporium no larger than one half of the front hallway of a tiny house, just like our own. But small as it may have been, it seemed to hold everything edible a child might desire.
My travels were always accompanied by a slight whiz or buzz noise from the back mudguard-stays rubbing the rear tyre. I quickly learned the total impossibility of ever adjusting a mudguard so that it doesn’t rub the tyre. You get it right for one side and it will rub on the other, when that has been taken care of, it’s back to the original side once more. My cycle’s mudguard-stays were bent in every direction as a result of these futile attempts at preventing this irritating sound. Front mudguards never rub; that is a solid fact of bicycle ownership. Likewise, lining up the handlebars so that they aren’t at a slant when you travel in a straight line is only possible on an older bicycle for a period of not more than five minutes – assuming the machine is not moved from its stationary position - that saddles rotate both vertically and horizontally, often simultaneously, when you least expect it, is another facet of old bicycle ownership. One should learn to enjoy the experience rather than delude one’s self that there is anything to be done about it. Trying to tighten the appropriate nuts is folly, there is not a person born to this planet strong enough to make this adjustment adequately. Yet another obstacle that lies before the budding cyclist is that a saddle can never be raised quite high enough. The manufacturer’s policy has always been to make the saddle stem tube one or two inches short, certain in the knowledge of the irritation this will cause later.
Echoes of the War
Although the war was well and truly over, there were many things remaining that served as reminders of that terrible period. My father and several local men had helped one another in the very difficult job of demolishing each other’s air-raid shelters. Father turned what had been an ugly reminder of the war years into a permanent, peacetime eyesore. Using the below ground part of our Anderson shelter as a fishpond, he then used many of the large chunks of ugly, broken concrete, as a rockery to surround it. The remainder of the broken concrete, leftover from the shelter’s demolition, was tipped at night by wheelbarrow at the nearby site of a bombed out house, creating even more debris for some unfortunate to clear away – and from where, no doubt it was shifted to the grounds of yet another derelict house.
Our garden shed/workshop was then made from the curved, heavy gauge, corrugated steel sections that, in their previous life, had been covered by a thick concrete shell, protecting us from any unpleasantness the Hun might drop from the skies. These sections were all bolted together with big steel bolts and a bucket full of them, surplus to requirements, sat for years in the shed, a-waiting a time when an imaginative boy like me would find a good use for them.
These bolts were too large to be useful for anything around the house, but as soon as I became interested in explosives their days in the bucket were numbered. I had heard stories from Dad about the dangerous practice of filling old hollow keys with red matches then banging a nail down inside to detonate them. This evidently had been something his generation had done, often with dire consequences. He, wisely, in attempting to steer me away from trying this, showed instead how to make bolt bombs using small diameter bolts. Alas, before the instruction was over, my mind was busy regarding the bucket of bolts.
By taking one bolt and screwing it a little less than halfway into a nut you were offered a little container that would hold the scrapings from a half dozen or so red matches. Then, by carefully screwing another bolt in from the opposite side until it just squeezed the contents, you were only in need of a length of string which would act as both a means to hurl the bomb high and to become a tail, ensuring it hit ‘head on’ when contacting the road.
Following my first test I was banned from making explosions in our narrow street. So, with a group of friends, I ventured locally, all of us on our bicycles, and found the ideal spot – a point where four quiet roads formed a junction, one of them leading up to St. John’s church where I had, of late, become a choirboy. We successfully detonated some of my new bolt-bombs. They were surprisingly loud, but, boys being boys, we wanted an even bigger explosion. I scraped all the red explosive material from the remaining matches in the box into just one bolt – much more than before. Realizing the inherent danger, I screwed the bolts together with especial care, while the others retreated some distance. When all seemed clear I twirled the bolt around on its string, faster and faster, letting it go perfectly. Up and up it went, till just a speck. Then observing it had begun its decent; I turned and ran towards my group of friends. Startled by his sudden appearance, I barely avoided running under the wheels of our vicar, The Reverend Moore, sitting rather stately on his tall bicycle, coming around the corner quite perfectly dressed in his dark suit, trilby hat and ‘dog-collar’. The bomb hit just a few yards from us, the explosion quite marvellous, certainly far beyond my expectations, so loud, in fact that the Rev. Moore and his bicycle were shocked into an irretrievable wobble that dashed him to the ground. Dazed and seemingly not fully realizing what had occurred, he picked himself up and wheeled his bicycle into the vicarage. Fortunately, he failed to recognize me, as on Sundays, the one day of each week this might have been possible, I masqueraded as a cherub, wearing a choristers ankle length black cassock, a pure white, pleated surplus and stiff, frilled, Elizabethan ruff collar. Under this disguise the following Sunday, I paid more than my usual attention to his two lengthy sermons. Disappointingly he made no reference to the incident and left me unable to discern whether he regarded his experience as a strike from the heavens above, perhaps a warning regarding a minor theological misdemeanour betwixt him and his maker, or yet another example, if one were needed, of the declining behaviour of the post war generation. We searched the road for the bomb and found it in two halves - the heavy, strong threads literally pulled apart.
I soon ventured into night riding, mainly in order that I might leave home even later for Cubs than I had previously done on foot. This required yet more of my weekly sixpences to be expended at the Woolworth’s bicycle counter. Eventually I had enough saved for an Ever-Ready front and rear lamp. These sat waiting for two weeks until I could also afford the batteries.
In my first week of night riding, my new lamps illuminated the road in a most pleasing manner, but before the subsequent week was over, a pathetic, yellow glow was the most I could expect, that miserable beam failing to shine even beyond the front tyre. At first the solution was simple, just a rapid rotation back and forth of the pressed steel, knurled switch until the lamp brightened, (always accompanied by a distinctive, dry, rusty squeak). This proved to be but a temporary solution. Inevitably, by the third week, one had to beat the top of the lamp quite mercilessly to maintain adequate illumination. A few more days and all the beating in the world wouldn’t help. Some technical tinkering was now called for and the lamps top, should it not have already fused on permanently with rust, was removed. Inside, the batteries’ two, long, flexible, brass contacts could now be bent upwards, as far as one might dare. Too much and catastrophe struck in the shape of popped off chunks of the shiny, black tar topping, (I held a deep belief that this tar topping was all that sealed my nine-pence worth of precious electricity from escaping into the ether). With the passage of a further few weeks, all efforts to extract illumination would prove quite worthless, the lamp failing to glow in the least, regardless of how close to the eye it was held. The futile installation of new batteries and bulbs did nothing whatsoever to change the situation. A new lamp was required.
The rear lamps operated differently and were marginally more reliable. By screwing the part with the red glass further onto the main housing, the light generally would come on. However, while riding, a regular backward glance was well advised to ensure that the lamp hadn’t failed or sufficiently dimmed to gain interest from the local policeman; he whose lights shone unceasingly bright! Eventually, the rear light shone less brightly, transmitting a fluttering form of Morse code. A good thumping kick from the heel of your right foot would usually bring back a permanent, if not reduced, glow. With this form of careful attention one could extend the life of one’s rear lamp a little; sufficient for what remained of that winter’s after dark riding. Over the remaining months, naturally the kicks needed to be applied with increased ferocity. The end came unexpectedly. Without any warning whatsoever, the lamp, receiving its final mortal blow, rotated around the back fork tube to which it was affixed, then, with an awful death rattle, destroyed itself and most of the wheel’s spokes - the lamp then giving a few final little flickers of light before expiring. The loan of a spoke key and a journey to Woolworth’s was now an urgent necessity.
Surprisingly, my newly acquired transport did prove somewhat reliable in a department notoriously irritating to most cyclists. The tyres, at each morning’s inspection, usually contained a modicum of air, rarely being completely flat. However, vigorous exertions were still required before contemplating riding any distance. The tyre pump had come with the machine, squeezed, but only loosely, between lugs under the crossbar. (In time this pump, with its ill fit between the crossbar lugs, inevitably fell victim to a particularly large pothole in our road where, on being dislodged from it’s repose, fell, first hitting my leg before going neatly between the chain and front sprocket, meeting a just and well deserved death - this event bringing me some short pleasure, but still further expense at the Woolworth’s bicycle counter.)
Deep inside the pump’s innermost sanctum a very shrivelled leather washer had lived out a long, lonely life and though I doctored this essential item, spreading it out and heaping on large dollops of Vaseline, it stayed pathetically shrunken, the result being that what little air had so fleetingly been contained, rushed out past this leather plunger to make an early re-acquaintance with the outside atmosphere. If, when a final squeeze of the particular tyre being attended to indicated the pressure sufficient, the challenge now faced was the removal of the short connecting tube without loss of all the air gained by such grand exertions. Despite practice and speed the tyre was, invariably, only a little harder than when one had begun the task.
Bound closely to this accomplishment though, was the certain knowledge that your valve rubber was as yet un-perished. This insignificant little tube of India rubber was the cause of much woe and repeated trips to Woolworth’s. Sadly, for a child who had survived the rigors of wartime Britain, the word ‘perished’ occurred altogether too frequently for one of such tender years.
What I hadn’t learnt at this early stage of my association with the bicycle was that new puncture outfits had spare parts, such as valve rubber, nestled down in amongst the sandpaper and rubber patches. As my journeys lengthened, puncture outfits took on a greater importance, not the use of them particularly, that fortunately was a reasonably rare occurrence, rather the smug feeling of security that came with the knowledge that one was back there in the saddle-bag, rolled up in a greasy rag, along with various ill fitting spanners and other poor quality tools taken away from Dad’s shed without his knowing.
This surreptitious taking of tools became necessary as only a few weeks previous I had innocently or wantonly, (depending on your viewpoint), snapped one handle from a pair of his cheap quality pliers, over-tightening them in his equally cheap quality vice then, in great panic, attempting to cover up my crime by gluing it on again using the only adhesive to hand in those pre-superglue, pre-epoxy days, a tube of Seccotine, fish based glue. This foul smelling product, apparently, had less adhesive potential than did dried Tizer – the result being that Dad, that very next Saturday, needing to use his pliers, found them in the tool rack, with the broken handle hanging by a few congealed threads of Seccotine. From that day I was banished from the shed, the door being firmly locked. After only a week of banishment, gazing sadly through the cobwebbed window at my lonely fretwork bench strewn with unfinished projects, I could resist the exclusion no longer. With little effort I gained entry around the back of the shed, removing the whole window frame with the only tool that was entirely mine, a screw-driver from my Meccano set.
The reality of puncture outfits was a different story all together for, when the eventual roadside emergency did occur and a puncture repair was needed the patches usually had lost their reliable, bright red rubber look, and the all-important crisp edges peeled from their protective backing. Each patch had now taken on a powdery whiteness caused by miles of vibration acting on the little rectangle of French chalk supplied, now half it’s original size and difficult to hold onto while working it across the ineffective grater so very smoothly embossed on the bottom of the tin. This was not, though, a major problem as dry road dust was usually in abundance and acted as an acceptable substitute, to prevent the bonding of inner tube to tyre casing.
No, the problem with puncture outfits is their very essence - the reason for their existence - that little tube of precious, indispensable rubber solution. A golden rule of ‘on the road bicycle repair’ is that rubber solution is not, as is generally believed, a liquid - it is a solid, always a solid. Press as you may, the tube will not exude any liquid from its nozzle. Under certain circumstances, if extreme pressure is applied, a semi-solid, slightly moist exudation may appear out of the bottom, folded end of the tube onto your fingers, but this cannot always be relied upon. The only action available is the purchase of yet another puncture outfit as, unfortunately, the manufacturers deem it unnecessary to offer this item separately.
It was a year or two later, during a road-side emergency, that I, stranded with a serious puncture at the foot of Wrotham Hill, spent the better part of a hot afternoon stuffing a front tyre as tightly as possible with semi-dry grass as, yet again, my little tube of rubber solution was solid. I was by now quite certain as to my suspicions regarding this product, pondering as to how, at the Dunlop factory, they could insert the congealed, tube shaped glob of yellowish rubber so neatly into its thin lead container.
The grass stuffing idea, that in the desperate circumstances near Wrotham seemed such a stroke of genius, turned out to be something recommendable only to persons in need of small quantities of silage, perhaps a smallholder, winter feeding a diminutive rabbit. When finally I arrived home, the resulting liquidized filth was removed only with the greatest difficulty and with much offence to all of my senses.
My bicycle, though a treasured possession was, with its lack of gears, heavy weight and “sit up and beg” posture, soon limiting my adventures out and beyond Farningham Hill. Travel beyond that point was always done with the knowledge that later in the day you would be pedalling up this long difficult hill. Walking was not an option. This was an activity totally alien to my new, wheeled way of life.
By now, a year and a half later, I had increased my pocket money to a substantial one- shilling and sixpence. This had come about through a Boy Scout initiative to raise money; a scheme called ‘Bob A Job’ week. All Cubs and Scouts were issued with a card and instructions to go out and do jobs of work for friends and neighbours at a rate of one shilling per job and contribute this to the local Pack or Troop. I only managed to get one job, and that with nearby friends of my family who worked all week and apparently didn’t have the time or inclination to polish their extensive collection of brass and copperware. This suited me well, as I had always enjoyed the process, the results being satisfyingly fast and rewarding. Handing the shilling over to the Scouts organization, however, I found far less satisfying.
Unfortunately, my employers also required the weekly cleaning of their cutlery and this I found an abominable chore. There seemed no reward. The Silvo polish appeared to do little, leaving only a white deposit on the cloth, whereas Brasso covered your hands, the newspaper, with which you protected the table, and everything else in sight with a satisfying, black coating of exhausted polish.
When ‘Bob A Job’ week was over I carried on with this job for years, pocketing the cash myself. This small increase in my wealth was not sufficient to make my goal of a better bicycle a realistic prospect. However, my mother and father had, of late, attempted to relive their courting days by buying two, used bicycles - a Raleigh semi-sportster, black and gold with a willow basket affixed to the handlebars for Mum and a sporty metallic blue B.S.A. tourer for Dad. They seemed to lose interest through one short summer and I eyed the B.S.A. with much avarice, hidden as it was under its homemade cover of silver, ex-barrage balloon fabric. Not surprisingly there was no offer of this wonderful machine as Father really never knew or asked anything about my interests or activities.
Money And Dogs
By now I was thirteen and old enough to apply for a position as paper boy at Rogers Newsagents along Welling High Street. I was successful in my application - more from my mother, a long time customer of Mr. Rodgers, making the initial enquiry on my behalf than from any great abilities of my own. The paper round on offer was one of the shop’s best, paying a princely fifteen shillings a week. This amount, added to my weekly one shilling and sixpence, was thought considerable riches in those days of the early 1950s. The prospect of a good bike was at last a reality. My parents could, I am sure, have arranged hire purchase through one of the local cycle shops but my family always made it plain that you did not buy that which you could not afford. I obtained a larger moneybox, a black one with gold and red lines, with a brass effect handle and a lock for security, (one wonders why a prospective thief might be deterred by this, rather than pocketing the convenient box and its contents altogether). Into this tin box I deposited my earnings, along with a few old coins that had come into my possession - a silver groat, a silver five-shilling piece and my newly acquired Festival of Britain five-shilling coin in its purple presentation box.
Late one spring afternoon I came home from school to find that my parents had left a note saying they had gone out on their bicycles for, as it turned out, their last ever ride. I went to my moneybox to count its contents, something I did most evenings, only to find it empty. With the return of my parents it was discovered we had all been robbed. Mother’s savings for the family’s annual holiday, kept in a pot on her dressing table, were gone as well as money from her shopping bag purse. I was initially accused of the total robbery, but eventually my despair over my own great loss and the scraped transom window in the kitchen, which the attending policeman pointed out, was enough to convince them of my innocence. Soon after, whether from guilt of the accusation or, (doubtfully), sheer kindness of heart, Father told me I could have the B.S.A.
I quickly stripped the bike of superfluous accessories to make it lightweight, purchased ‘French bend’ handlebars, very much in vogue with sporting cyclists at the time, and replaced the lovely, large, brass bell, with a more sporty little bulb horn that I had noticed the real ‘hard-men’ of the ‘Welling Wheelers’ and other such sporting riders displayed.
My old bike was retained, as my paper round required a really strong bike to carry the huge bag of papers. One wasn’t paid fifteen shillings for nothing. The bag could barely be lifted onto the cross bar on Sundays. Thursday afternoons were even more arduous with the weekly magazines and local papers to deliver. This work I happily continued until I started ‘proper’ work at age fifteen.
One of my morning customers lived near to us on Hook Lane. They owned a ferocious dog that made delivering their newspapers a harrowing experience. As bad as the problem was all week, on Sundays it was truly frightening, their delivery consisted of many thick newspapers and it was impossible to get them through the letterbox quickly. The ferocious animal would slam against the door taking the newspapers in its mouth, twisting and turning trying to tear them from my grasp all the while barking so loudly in the echoing hallway. This, with the knowledge that I had to repeat the exercise, became something I dreaded. Week by week this angered me more and more and my hatred of the dog grew. I secretly devised a plan of action.
One very wet, rainy Sunday morning I made sure this customer’s papers were on the very outside of all the other newspapers. Here they could nicely absorb all the wet and filth of old newsprint ink and grime from within the bag, (this, a routine punishment I dolled out to customers for a period of not less than one month following Christmas, should they have failed to give me a Christmas gratuity. Following this treatment, all my actions were then aimed at bringing them back into the fold of kindness and generosity, delivering to them progressively drier, less grimy newspapers as the weeks went by).
This particular Sunday I sat on the low wall of the customer’s house and divided their papers into two equal amounts, then patiently folded them very tightly into two, long, wet wads that would, I knew, just slide through their letterbox. The sodden papers were surprisingly heavy. Creeping silently up their garden path, I pushed softly against the spring of the letterbox and successfully opened it without the dog becoming aware. I introduced the paper, inch by inch, until I had about half its length in place. Peering down the small space left to one side I could observe the creature lying asleep, some distance off, near the kitchen door. When all was ready, with a light rattle of the knocker, I roused the beast and in a split second he ran headlong towards the door. With impeccable timing I slammed the wad of papers with my left fist, hitting him full in the face. He let out a series of pathetic whelps, but being perhaps dazed from the experience returned sullenly to his position by the kitchen door. My second projectile was loaded into the breach with the efficiency of an artillery gunner. It only needed a tap of the knocker to launch him on his short journey down the hallway. He tore towards me at a frightening velocity, barking loudly. I launched the second missile with improved accuracy and power observing the projectile enter his open jaws at the crucial moment he reached the letterbox, only inches from my peering eyes. His whelps, this time, were rather more subdued, no doubt due, in part, to the five pounds of soggy newsprint jammed halfway down his throat. I gleefully made a quick retreat down their garden path, grabbed my bag from the wall and pedalled furiously into the misty murk of a November morning feeling very pleased with myself. The fate of the dog I do not know but, if he survived, I certainly never heard him stir again; and he gave me no further trouble. A complaint, however, was related to Mr. Rodgers regarding the condition of that particular Sunday’s delivery. The following Christmas I generously chose to forgo my customary gratuity at this particular address.
Follow The Yellow Brick Road!
My young legs became stronger as more and more miles were pedalled. My favourite journey being the Darenth Valley, Eynsford, Shoreham and Otford, sometimes with diversions eastwards to Kemsing, Plaxtol and even, eventually, Ightham, or West to Knockholt, Cudham and Chevening. Although whenever possible, rides would include Eynsford, my most favourite place where, to sit on the riverbank and have a swig of Tizer and a cheese sandwich laced with O.K sauce was my idea of heaven.
Most other journeys took me along the A20, climbing the awfully long, boring drag that started at the bottom of Farningham Hill, then past Brands Hatch and West Kingsdown. This particularly laborious journey was worthwhile only because at the end of it all you sat on the top of the world at Wrotham Hill, where below you could see so very far into East Kent. This, later, would entice me to travel as far as Teston and Wateringbury, complete with fishing rod to sample the different fish of the Medway.
My enthusiasm for the countryside had no bounds and my neighbours, Mr. & Mrs. Allin, for whom I cleaned the brass and copperware, encouraged me no end with maps and books on countryside topics. They owned one of only two motorized vehicles in our road, a small, dark green Morris van they used for their business, and at weekends they travelled widely in the Kent countryside.
I gradually explored most lanes shown on the North West Kent sheet of the ‘one mile to the inch’ ordnance survey map, gaining as much pleasure from planning my routes as from the rides themselves. I could read a map so well that the terrain to be travelled was in my mind before the actual event took place. The map revealed whether a village church had a steeple or not, where you might splash through a forded stream or whether a railway line ran in a deep cutting or up on an embankment and sometimes the whereabouts of a tunnel. The existence of railway tunnels, in our area, was more exciting than it might seem, as towards Sevenoaks there were locations near remote lanes and in farm fields where round, brick structures stood, indicating that deep down under the chalk of the North Downs ran the railway tunnel and, if you were lucky or patient, you could, in those days of steam, stand by these vents and hear, far below, the rumble of a train followed soon after by billowing, aromatic coal smoke.
My neighbours once said, as we walked on Spare Penny Lane between Farningham and Eynsford, ‘that it was better to travel a few miles and see it intimately than to travel a great distance mindlessly - without attention’. I found this so true and the detail of my travels became ever more important to me.
I tried to bring my enthusiasm to others, even going to the ridiculous lengths of ‘publishing’ a cycle magazine that ran to two issues. The publication was printed using a child’s, ‘John Bull’, printing outfit where the rubber typeface was pressed into grooves cut in a little block of wood, actually two blocks of wood. One of which was a single, long line, the other, shorter, which could print about three lines at a time.
Typesetting in this way was difficult. Getting type to work around hand drawn pictures of bucolic scenes or bicycle maintenance drawings was no easy task. The magazine had glossy, thick, paper covers that gave the publication an air of quality. Inside, the other pages were of Basildon Bond, white writing paper. Regrettably, the glossy paper proved to be most unsuitable for my watercolour renditions, the paint endlessly beading up, not staying where my artistic imagination wished it to remain. The remedy, I felt, was a light sandpapering to break through the gloss. This was most effective; the paper changed its working properties immediately from total non-absorbency to something quite the opposite. In fact, I could have saved much time and frustration had I initially chosen blotting paper. However, as with most things, there was to be a silver lining. My rather severe draftsman-like conceptions were transformed into pictures of a somewhat free and abstract nature, a pleasant, restful blur of colour.
The magazine was passed around to several, seemingly keen, cyclist friends and on the strength of this interest I organized a cycle ride. All were to meet at Welling corner under the old air raid warning siren, next to the police box, at 9am prompt. When the clock on a nearby shop showed 10am I knew my planned route could not be achieved, even if they now did, at last, show up. By ten thirty I vowed to never rely on others again and forlornly set out alone on a shorter journey down to Woolwich Ferry, where, for no cost whatsoever, you could sit on a ferry boat and go back and forth across the two hundred yards or so of stinking green effluent that was the Thames, to your heart’s content, munching your sandwiches and swallowing gulps of tepid Tizer.
This simple, alternative journey, however, had its own adventure as, on going through Beresford Square, Woolwich my 1 ¼“ sports tyres seemed so well suited to the tram line tracks that they sank down into them, resulting in a journey not entirely of my own choice. I finally disengaged my bicycle several hundred yards further on, outside Woolwich Arsenal, thanks to a set of points that allowed me to finally extricate myself.
I cannot say, in retrospect, that Tizer was to be fully recommended to the sporting cyclist. The high level of vibration that occurred from our poorly maintained, uneven roads had a most unfortunate effect on this product. What previously amounted to two pints of bright orange, sweet liquid, soon turned into not less than twenty cubic yards of highly compressed sticky, orange gas; and though a quick twist of the black stone stopper would initially bring a powerful cooling mist to one’s hands and face - on drying, a cloying, all over stickiness engulfed one’s person. Should this experience be had during the warmer months, the dried product had much the same attraction to insect life as, previously, my un-dried, black Valspar had done. Undoubtedly, many pedestrians pondered as to why a cyclist might choose such unsuitable fluffy apparel during such clement weather. As a footnote I should say that serious sporting cyclists should take heed of the above, in that, exceptional time trials should not be expected; the air drag from this furry coating being considerable.
The desire for simplicity and reliability from my B.S.A. entailed stripping off any thing I deemed heavy, unreliable or ‘sissy’. In this latter category came mudguards. Despite these celluloid items having a practical side, I had observed that the ‘hard’ men of the ‘Welling Wheelers’ and their local rivals, the ‘Wickham Lane Wheelers’, were never seen with these pathetic items on their machines. This meant, of course, that one’s back was often soaked with a wide band of wet road grime and the mudguard-less front wheel, when cornering, ensured that your chest was similarly treated - a cost I thought well worth paying. Off too came the three-speed hub gear. In its place on one side of the rear wheel I placed a fourteen-tooth sprocket, on the other, a twelve tooth. The fourteen-tooth sprocket was difficult to pedal, the twelve-tooth virtually impossible on all but level ground. This seemed only a physical challenge, one I was certain that with grit and determination I would soon overcome. In no time at all it seemed I could ride anywhere. It was, however, difficult to ignore my lower legs, for they had taken on much of the appearance of those twisted party balloons that entertainers at the Woolwich Empire shaped into Dachshunds, giraffes and other strange creatures during the intervals at our yearly pantomime treat.
I had also discovered that, according to cycle lore, if you had a fixed wheel, (as this non free-wheeling arrangement was termed), you did not legally need a rear brake. Delighted, I quickly removed this surplus item, saving yet more weight. I purchased the narrowest, Terry’s saddle one could obtain and did what most of the racing men did, that being to lace it underneath to make it narrower still. For what purpose I never comprehended, but that was not important, you had to experience the sensation of sitting on something that was narrower than a blunt axe to be considered a serious cyclist.
I was relatively content with my machine, knowing that no other boy, locally, had anything very much better. Suddenly though, much to my disappointment, a sometimes friend/sometimes enemy, Terry Bates, had, on winning a place to a technical school at age thirteen, been promised the impossible, in 1951 – a brand new bicycle. Not just any brand new bicycle, but a specially ordered, Claude Butler, racing cycle from the town’s best bicycle shop on Wickham Lane.
In those post-war days of austerity, one could wait interminably for any new luxury item. This, however, did not seem to apply to Terry’s father’s purchase. Likewise, anything chromium plated was normally not to be had.
Terry’s bicycle arrived very quickly and to add to his obvious smugness it was also absolutely dripping with chromium-plate, even the frame was chromium-plated. Anything that wasn’t chrome was polished alloy. A seething jealousy fell upon me, the like of which, till then, I had not experienced.
One day it was proposed that we would ride to Brighton. My stock of maps did not include any that covered that direction so, with the help of my father’s A.A. members’ road book, I worked out the journey and wrote the route on a roll of paper, with the return journey on the opposite side. I was already familiar with the part of the journey that took us around the South Circular Road as, on this road, I had cycled to my grandparents in Morden, Surrey more than once.
Being now almost thirteen my palate had assumed some sophistication, my taste for Tizer having wavered in favour of R.Whites Cream Soda. This, along with cheese sandwiches and a packet of sultanas should, Mother thought, sustain me on my long journey. The first twenty miles were dreadful, nothing but South London suburbia, Eltham, Catford, Forest Hill and finally on to Streatham where the South Circular Road met with the famous London to Brighton Road.
This road was, and still is, far more than a simple connection between two places. Every kind of race and charity event and commemoration has taken place along its fifty miles, from Hyde Park corner to Madeira Drive, Brighton. My own grandfather, in the earliest years of the last century, had walked its miles with a silk wrapped fiddle in an old wooden case to play music on the Brighton beach in order that he might earn pennies for a destitute family living in dire circumstances in Islington. When he struck up his first tune a policeman apprehended him, informing him that to play on the beach for money required a license. He, having no money to apply, trudged the fifty-five miles back to his family in North London.
Once on this famous road, there were still many miles for Terry Bates and me to travel before anything resembling countryside would appear, but appear it did, around and about Redhill. We were now pedalling easier and had completed perhaps half of the distance - Terry on his light-weight, derailleur geared Claude Butler, myself on what was, in truth, not a sports bike at all, but a stripped down, ordinary, touring bike. So far, with the aid of strong, thirteen-year old legs and toe clips, I had managed to pedal my bike with its very high gearing. At Pycombe Hill, a few miles outside of Brighton, we briefly stopped that I might turn the rear wheel over to enjoy the sheer luxury of using the fourteen-tooth sprocket, with its easier pedalling, to ascend this final obstacle to our long awaited glimpse of the sea.
Having arrived, we sat on the shingle beach in the sun on what had, thankfully, been a very nice summer’s day, but with such an awesome journey to repeat, we had our lunch, threw a few stones into the sea, then dragged our bikes up the steps to the road. This short rest had done us no favours and I could tell it was to be a most difficult ride home. We had ridden down in a respectable five hours and now, as we left Brighton, passing those two huge, tall pillars, either side of the A 23 a few miles out, we were feeling weary and it was already nearly three in the afternoon.
Being ‘real’ cyclist’s we naturally did not encumber ourselves with anything as ‘sissy’ as lighting. We started to have serious doubts as to whether or not we would get back to Welling before it grew dark. The journey home was uneventful, but gruelling and terribly difficult. We spoke hardly a word, gazing straight ahead, down at the road, never taking in the longer view that inevitably would have discouraged us. On occasion I would reach back to the saddlebag for a swig of cream soda and in Terry’s case, his proper alloy water bottle perfectly positioned on the front down tube, no doubt containing something more appropriate.
We did get back, just before the last of the day’s light fled, after a five and a half hours pedalling. I had taken with me a shilling coin and some extra pennies in case of emergencies and returned these to my black and gold moneybox. Then, satisfying my next pressing need, I went to the upstairs bathroom. Going up the stairs was easy, natural, but coming down was quite impossible. For twenty minutes or more I sat on the top stair unable to keep my legs from rotating forwards.
Mum wanted to know all about my odyssey, so I talked down the stairs to her as she looked admiringly up at her son, asking the questions mothers do.
When, eventually, I got down the stairs, I went to the living room for my much over-cooked evening meal. Mother suggested I tell father of my adventure, so with a new feeling of success to bolster me, I summoned the courage to speak, but as father’s face did not appear above his Evening Standard I soon trailed off and concentrated on the food before me.
Neither Terry Bates nor I ever spoke of this amazing, one hundred and thirty two mile journey completed by two intrepid thirteen year olds. For my part I quietly relished how I, the skinniest boy on the street, had, mile by mile, ridden equal to a brand new, Claude Butler, chromium plated bicycle ridden by a well nourished, strapping lad, one whose doting father could spend more money on his son’s bicycle, than the majority of people in our neighbourhood earned in two weeks.
My bicycle proved to be really handy when my new interest, model aeroplanes, began to take over more and more. My bicycle got me to model shops, transported me with my models to the flying field, in nearby Avery Hill Park, or occasionally further a-field to locally occurring competitions.
For this task you needed a model box. These were fabricated from any appropriate sized cardboard box, generally having a shoulder harness made of coarse, unravelled, sisal string. In windy weather it was something of a challenge to attempt riding in a straight line, one hand being constantly needed to reach back and hold the box from swinging around and completely obscuring your view.
On one occasion a group of four of us local, model enthusiasts rode from where I now lived in Eltham to an airdrome at Enfield, Middlesex to take part in a competition - an amazing feat, undertaken without a thought as to the difficult, long journey right through the very heart of central London, each rider encumbered with a model box.
Cycling was starting to take on a purely utilitarian function and gradually the bicycle was changed back, piece by piece to its original specification. Soon the mudguards were doing what mudguards do - making rubbing noises. The lights were behaving how lights always had and the newly fitted wide ‘sissy’ saddle rotated freely on its various axis, bringing back a fairground ride feel to every journey. I was becoming interested in motorcycles.
This burgeoning interest in motorized travel, I recall, came about because several members of the model club were old enough to have real jobs, thus giving them the money to purchase either a used Trojan Mini-Motor or Power Pack to add to their cycles.
These awful contraptions were engine units that sat where a rear carrier would normally be mounted. They drove the rear wheel by a grooved friction roller that bore down on the tyre. The effect could be quite devastating. (Rumour had it that the manufacturers of these cycle engines were also major shareholders in the various tyre companies). One would all too often hear these monstrosities well before they came into view. When one did appear it could barely be seen for the surrounding shroud of smoke that stank of burning rubber and excessive two-stroke oil. This came about from both the ill-tuned carburettor and the freely spinning drive roller, which removed the semi-molten rubber from the rear tyre at a rate that surely imposed a considerable limitation on the distance of any journey taken. Another great disadvantage of these grim inventions was that, having a high centre of gravity, cornering at low speeds meant the rider experienced a sensation similar to that of a ‘wall of death’ performer whose machine’s engine had suddenly failed, the inadequate speed guarantying that Newton’s law would soon prevail.
For those with more money to spend a much better designed cycle motor appeared, the ‘Cycle Master’, soon followed by BSA’s ‘Winged Wheel’. These engines were built into an enlarged rear-wheel hub. They were an effective but considerably more expensive option.
My model-flying friend, Derek Pratt, had acquired a French Cymoto, an ‘improved’ bicycle engine with built in headlamp and having its Velo-Solex engine cowled over by a rattling tin cover, this engine unit mounted over the front wheel. It was, if at all possible, an even more horrid idea than the British rear wheel kind.
However, with his mechanical skills and newly purchased Myford lathe, and my woodworking ability, (as an apprentice patternmaker, with access to tools and timber), we decided on a quite different approach. The company of Bodgem & Muck Inc. was formed. The corporate headquarters and sprawling manufacturing plant were located beyond the fishpond in the shaded end of Derek’s parents’, long garden in Petts Wood, Kent.
With modifications to the drive shaft and a mounting extension that enabled the propeller to clear the front wheel, our ‘very much improved’, powered cycle now only needed a suitable airscrew to be produced. This was painstakingly done under the very noses of management and foremen at 269 Rotherhithe New Road, Bermondsey where B&M’s pattern and foundry requirements were fulfilled, also the place where my apprenticeship was well under way. Eventually, the propeller was delivered and fitted, a twenty-two inch, bright, clear varnished beauty of moderate pitch, proudly sporting the company’s revered and trusted name.
For reasons of safety and to obviate any possibility of industrial espionage, the testing was to be done secretly, on a quiet, remote, woodland path, with the machine being wheeled to this location, its mechanical secrets shrouded by an old coal sack. Away from prying eyes, preparations were made for its first test. At last the peace of this sylvan setting was shattered by the engine’s roar where Derek, the chosen driver/pilot, sensibly dressed in Halford’s leather helmet and World War Two, orange tinted, army ski goggles, sat tightly gripping the handlebars. Then, with a quick twist of the throttle he brought the engine’s roar to a crescendo. With a cheery call of “chocks away”, so reminiscent of those brave boys not so far from us in time or place at Biggin Hill, he released the brakes and the machine rapidly accelerated. Sadly however not forwards, but backwards, coming to an abrupt stop against an oak of considerable girth.
It was realized, as we dejectedly pushed the machine home, that the pitch of the propeller had been, through some lack of communication, confusion, or just plain stupidity on my part, carved for an opposite engine rotation, thereby blowing air forwards rather than back. A lack of time and the everyday pressures of design and manufacture of other exciting products in the B&M Companies extensive catalogue, prevented further work or research and, like so many awe-inspiring products ahead of their time, was sadly shelved.
Farewell to Simple Things
I soon followed Derek’s purchase of a real motorcycle by buying my own, a 1948 350cc Matchless scrambler with silver alloy mudguards, a hand painted tank, (post office red), and a black painted frame - a return to Valspar, flies, grit and dust, but with the added attraction, to insect life, of leaking oil. Being an, alleged, sporting machine, the previous owners had chosen to use racing oil instead of conventional and freely available mineral oil. I later learned that this had little to do with improved lubrication, but rather that the smell, when wafted into the nostrils of a sophisticated aficionado, would reveal that here rode a man of a sporting, competitive spirit.
This particular oil, when escaping the confines of the engine’s interior, would bake onto the whole engine in a way very akin to the outside appearance of a well-used chip fryer. The main drive chain case was a flimsy affair that relied on an ill- fitting rubber seal; the chain-case leaked its contents as freely, as did the gearbox. The front forks of the machine were damped by oil, this too had a strong desire to escape and reunite with its various oily cousins spreading in all directions over the machine.
Thus, my Matchless machine had a thirst for oil that nearly equalled its petrol consumption and, as its lubrication was the rare and precious Castrol R, only obtainable at specialty shops, I was always obliged to carry a substantial quantity in my pannier bags.
My learning to drive a motorcycle was littered with many minor accidents. In short, I was always coming off. The combination of a road that wasn’t perfectly straight with a light sprinkle of rain, guaranteed that I would soon be having a closer inspection of the various road surfaces that the South East of England had to offer.
It was only when attempting to sell the machine a year later that a prospective buyer pointed out that the two wheels, when viewed from behind, formed the shape of an X - not the perfect alignment necessary for safe travel.
This machine proved to be so utterly unreliable that my journeys were considerably reduced in distance from my bicycling days. I never dared to venture far, as each trip would invariably end with me pushing the heavy Matchless home. .
Occasionally, I would travel to work in Bermondsey on the Matchless and if the Gods smiled and a little tinkering was performed during the dinner hour, the machine could sometimes complete a homeward journey as well, a staggering sixteen mile trip.
Saturdays were exclusively reserved for major repairs. Just about every part of the machine was eventually replaced with either new or, when available, cheaper used parts. Because of this I became very expert at stripping the machine down, especially the engine, which I could literally take out of the frame and completely dismantle within twenty minutes. Doing this, on one occasion with my eyes closed, to prove a point.
Finally, in order to sell this ghastly machine with something approaching a clear conscience, I purchased a complete, new, rear frame assembly, (at an expense twice that of the machine’s original cost), in an attempt to get the two wheels in proper alignment.
At my work place, a foundry-man had a motorcycle for sale. This was a really good machine, a 500cc AJS, resplendent in black with gold trim, with a little chromium plating, despite having been built the year following the cessation of war, and it came complete with a pair of leather panniers, all in very good condition. Perhaps it was an export model, with its chrome and gold striping that somehow stayed at home. Although I ‘improved’ this bike in a few ways, which included buying one of the first Avon fibreglass handlebar fairings, it needed very little and at the grand price of £6 was an excellent buy. Many longer trips were completed on the trusty Ajay for, as with my second bicycle, its reliability encouraged me to explore further and further field.
A group of us left for one such trip, a week’s camping in the New Forest. I was the only one riding solo while the other three travelled together on an old, side valve BSA with a single-seat sidecar attached. ‘Ginger’ Spalding had bought this machine for the princely sum of £10, especially for this venture.
We started out from Eltham on a Friday evening about dusk. When nearing Abinger Hammer in Surrey I overtook them and pointed down to the exhaust pipe, glowing a bright cherry red, so very close to Ginger’s leg. Pulling off into a convenient but unlit pub car park, the glow was most apparent to all, the engine far hotter than it should have been, despite hauling the three strapping lads and camping equipment across the North Downs. With the paint beginning to bubble on the lower parts of the petrol tank near to the engine, a plan of action was quickly drawn up. Turning the engine off we gathered around the machine, closing ranks, and communally urinated on it. This helped in cooling the fiery engine somewhat, but also gave some indication of our disappointment at its performance thus far. We left the car park very soon after the activity, following an odorous, greenish haze having quickly settled in the cool night air. The old BSA completed the rest of the journey to our usual campsite near Emory Down without further complaint and we settled into our weeks’ holiday well.
One afternoon we decided to go to the Rufus Stone. We made our journey across country on narrow, unfamiliar lanes. The BSA, its driver and passengers, were about fifty yards ahead of me, when the sidecar outfit took a right hand bend too rapidly. Despite Ginger’s considerable riding skills, he was unable to regain control and the outfit plunged off the road. To my horror it rolled over, sliding upside-down while still doing a good speed.
I pulled up rapidly, parking my machine on its stand. Then, running to what was left of the machine, found all was silent. My friends were all trapped beneath and probably dead. In a few moments though I could just discern faint sounds issuing from the wreckage and, thus spurred on, tried again to extricate them, but in vain. I couldn’t lift the heavy bike and sidecar off of them. As more pitiful sounds of life issued out I redoubled my efforts and struggled on. Easing some of the weight, first one, then another, then a third grubby body squeezed out from the debris, all laughing so hysterically that they were barely audible, swallowing their own laughter between spitting out sandy dust.
The sidecar chassis was horribly bent out of alignment and the sidecar body a total wreck, literally demolished. So, while a companion and I went to the nearest town to buy or scrounge some suitable timber, nails and bolts, the two remaining set a good fire of available firewood in order to attempt some impromptu blacksmithing. On my return with the materials I found that the others had heated and straightened the chassis well enough that it would probably get them home.
The rest of our day was spent building a wooden box large enough for a person and the camping gear. The final securing of box to chassis was achieved mainly with a number of ‘Tootal’ brand neckties whose presence on a Goon Gang holiday remains a complete mystery. With this done we proceeded on our way, taking a brief look at the Rufus Stone. I would doubt that King Rufus had better adventures in that familiar part of the forest excepting, that is, his final day when, either by accident or assassination, he died of an arrow shot.
Friday nights were usually the most boring of the week, none of the local or London jazz and folk clubs ever operated on these evenings. Friday nights were not our ‘pub’ nights or vintage car or motorbike gatherings either. So, a knock on my door around 8pm one warm, August, Friday evening offered at least the possibility of something to do. It was Ginger Spalding, he had decided to ride down to Stonehenge through the night on his fast, noisy B.S.A Gold Star and as I had never had a ride on this impressive machine, even as a pillion passenger, I jumped at the opportunity. My parents, of course, were surprised at such an instant decision, for they certainly would have planned such a trip a year or two in advance, with Dad doing a major overhaul of the family’s pre-war, S.S Jaguar for the round trip of two hundred miles.
With my needs for the trip filling but one pocket of my motorbike jacket, and a couple of pound notes stuffed into my jeans, off we went into the dusk. The roads were quite empty and being dark the journey was not memorable in any way, excepting the Gold Star’s distinctive exhaust note not far from my ear, which, no doubt delayed a good night’s sleep to many of the villagers whose homes we passed.
In the late1950s no monument, not even one as important as Stonehenge, was guarded or even fenced off. From the road that traversed Salisbury Plain, we rode the bike up to the stone circle and leant it against one of the ancient stones. It was, by now, around midnight and becoming rather cold so, leaving our motorbike suits on, we laid our selves down on what was referred to, by common folk at that time, the altar stone.
Here, we stretched out on our backs, looking up at almost constant meteor showers, late August being well known as the best time for this phenomenon. It took ages for me to get to sleep, though Ginger, adaptable as ever, was soon contentedly snoring alongside me. To keep in as much warmth as possible we both wore our crash helmets and gloves and I added to this by donning my nice, leather, padded, RAF pilot’s goggles, which helped, and finally went to sleep.
Uncertain why, I awoke quite suddenly, observing the very pale, first glimmer of light spreading across Salisbury Plain. Becoming more awake and looking up again at the night sky I heard, at a distance, the light slam of a car door. I nudged Ginger awake, fearing for our lives, thinking that perhaps some latter day Druid might want to sacrifice us for desecrating his cherished stone.
We anxiously waited, but couldn’t see or hear a thing. Then, approaching murmurings gradually became audible. “You see, Phillip,” said a very posh English-woman’s voice, “Just once a year, at the solstice, the sun comes right between these two huge stones here - where then, and only then it shines there, on the altar stone.”
The sight of us, prone on the altar stone and dressed as we were, must have been a horrifying one, for there came a terrific shriek from the woman, followed by hers and little Phillip’s feet pounding fast across the sheep-cropped turf. The car door slammed and the distinctive sound of a Morris Minor making every attempt at a fast getaway came through the air. We watched the headlights, the only lights for miles around, disappearing across the deserted Plain for a quarter of an hour until at last they twinkled from view.
Restraining Rubber Wear
In those far off days of the late1950s motorcyclists were quite well catered for in the general run of accessories. However, proper clothing for inclement weather still had some way to go. Those with plenty of money could buy the newly available Barbour suits, made of waxed cotton, a quite breathable material that kept the wet out and let perspiration out too. Unable to afford the £15 price tag I, like many others, opted for a Belstaff suit for about half that price. These suits were quite waterproof, being made of the same material as Wellington boots - rubber, with a similar cloth backing. Consequently, in cold conditions the garment became semi-rigid, almost completely lacking in flexibility. When the rider dismounted, the stiff nature of the garment had him walking in a most awkward fashion, more the gait of the Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz than a motorcyclist.
The waterproof nature of these garments naturally extended also to the interior, where, unless the outside temperature stayed well below freezing, the trapped, clammy atmosphere of rubber, sweat and general bodily odours would, on removal of the garment, be most nauseating.
Removal of these cumbersome suits for any activity was difficult, with a plethora of powerful brass press-studs to negotiate. As for the need to urinate, no provision was provided, making this activity a particularly onerous one. The suits’ makers, no doubt in the interest of complete waterproofing, had failed to provide a forward opening. They then added further frustration by ensnaring the user of the trousers with huge rubberised braces that crossed at the back, thus preventing all but the most agile a chance of escape. The only way out was removal of your jacket, scarf, helmet and goggles, then, stooping low and acting out a passable impression of the Hunch Back of Notre Dame one could eventually wriggle free from the pile of undulating rubber. This procedure, in inclement weather, was an activity guaranteed to find you quite as soaked as if the suit had been dispensed with in the first place. I determined to do something about this.
I gave the problem some thought and found that with much care one could, by opening the right hand side pocket of the rubber trousers, successfully urinate sideways out through this narrow aperture. Soon after acquiring this new skill I, along with several of our crowd, ventured down to Dover on a cold, dreary, winter’s Sunday afternoon. We were standing high on the cliffs, slightly south of the town, when nature called. I demonstrated my new, time saving technique to my friends. They were most impressed, but sensibly heeded my warning that much practice was needed in order to achieve a successful conclusion to this activity.
Ginger Spalding, never one to stand back from any challenge in life or to delay acquiring a new skill, decided, against my best advice, to try this new technique at once. Whether his inaccuracy resulted from a lack of practice, or, that he was distracted by the hilarity of those observing the spectacle, is unimportant, something caused the catastrophe and without a pause he emptied the complete contents of his bladder down the inside right leg of his rubber trousers. Steam quickly issued forth from anywhere it could, particularly the trouser bottoms, waistband and, soon after, the collar of his jacket, just below his famous, huge, fiery red beard. Ginger stood in a pall of rising steam, a beacon atop the White Cliffs of Dover. His homeward journey was a solitary affair.
With our motorcycles, at long last proving generally reliable, we looked for a fresh challenge. The three of us, Ginger, Derek and me, had somehow heard through the grapevine that a flying club, operating at Biggin Hill by ex members of the R.A.F, needed some extra people to pack out their numbers. The ‘flying club’ appeared to be a cover for an un-regulated drinking bar for Second World War sots. We were all accepted as ‘students’ and told that the club’s aircraft, a 1930s Tiger- Moth biplane, would cost us £2 for each hour’s lesson. We obtained our basic flying apparel from the numerous ‘army surplus’ shops in our area. A proper sheepskin WW2 flying jacket cost a princely £7/ 5- shillings, a price, though cheap, alas, one I couldn’t afford.
Even for us apprentices, learning various trades on low wages, these lessons were affordable and in my own case I could afford a lesson every two or three weeks. However, we soon found that the lessons were anything but structured. Weather permitting, you turned up at the Nissan hut that served both as bar and operations centre and signed the roster. Then, assuming someone there was willing or sober enough to take you up, you would await your flight.
Should you happen to be the first student there, it would be necessary to get the aircraft from the hanger, a job akin to carefully disassembling a jigsaw puzzle. Many and various planes had been threaded closely together and the responsibility of getting our Tiger out, avoiding damage to it and any other planes, was considerable.
One’s first flight was a familiarization, an experience just to see if you were suitable material - able to retain the contents of your stomach for the length of an average lesson. You weren’t expected to do any learning on this occasion. After the considerable thrill of my first take off and attaining some altitude, flying officer Rutter immediately launched us into loops, then spins towards earth, most likely in the hope that I should never turn up again and interfere with his weekend drinking.
On my second outing I was, soon after take-off, given control of the plane. This was usually indicated by an indistinguishable squelching noise coming through the ‘spit and gob tube’ which would cause you to turn around enough to see your instructor gesticulating as to what was required; this system was the predecessor, on early Tiger Moths, to a later and slightly better electric communication system between pilots. Basic flying came easy to all of us, as model aeroplanes had taught most of what we needed to know about keeping level or turning, using rudder and ailerons, climbing and diving. I liked flying, it was as if one were motorcycling through the sky - especially as the Tiger Moth was open cockpit and the wind whistled past you and the noise of the Gypsy engine rang in your ears. We had one member who flew airliners all week and came to Biggin Hill at weekends to fly the Tiger Moth, to do as he said, “some real flying”.
One Saturday, when my enthusiasm to have my third or fourth flight overtook my common sense, I rode through rain and wind on my A.J.S. to Biggin Hill where I was greeted with astonishment by the remnants of those few, who, ‘never in the history of human conflict etc, etc’, lounged about on decrepit armchairs and settees holding subsidized drinks served from the ever-open bar. “What do you want?” exclaimed the one nearest the door, the only one whose head wasn’t buried in an ancient copy of Picture Post Magazine. “A lesson,” I answered boldly. “What! In this bloody weather?” came a unanimous answer from all the raised heads. Bravely, or out of embarrassment, I wrote my name on the empty page of the flight roster.
After a couple of hours of reading dog-eared magazines it was realised that the wind force had lessened, the club’s wind-sock outside no longer blew horizontally. With some prompting I got one of them to accompany me to the hanger, where, with the usual difficulty, we untangled our Moth from the rest of the airdrome’s fleet. We taxied our plane out onto one of the runways, against the prevailing wind, and uncomfortably close, I thought, to the control tower, which seemed no more than one hundred yards ahead. Here, the engine was advanced to full revs and forward we rolled, almost immediately airborne, rising on a moderate wind. In another few seconds we rose above the control tower. At this very moment the tutor, who, on this occasion sat ahead of me, threw up his hands exclaiming, “She’s all yours.”
I had been given a plane on a steep climb and in a gentle turn to the left- whether this demonstrated his confidence in me or perhaps his state of inebriation I was all too busy to decide. The weather slowly cleared and we had a good flight, following the railway line towards Ashford. We eventually ascended to ten thousand feet, very high and very cold in an open cockpit plane. My instructor pleased me by stating that from that altitude we could probably glide back to Biggin Hill should we have an engine failure, a slight comfort I felt, for we never carried parachutes.
On another occasion, when asking about navigation, probably contemplating my eventual solo across country flight; a requirement to gaining a private license, I was cheerfully told, “Most of us just drop down really low, if no one is about, to read the main road signs. It’s more reliable, unless it’s foggy.” It must have been very foggy, on an early morning flight by one of our ‘aces’, as instead of landing at Manston Airdrome, where he was scheduled, he landed instead at least twenty miles off course at an airdrome elsewhere in East Kent. This base was off limits to everyone, especially womanising ex wartime ‘heroes’, as it was being used as a training camp for Women’s Royal Air Force inductees. The “Ace” was released from custody later that day.
One pleasant, sunny, Saturday afternoon, we arrived to find that a member of the club, who only occasionally dropped in, had flown up in his own plane and we all were invited to have a flight with its owner, instead of in our ‘Tiggy’. His was a pre-war, low-wing monoplane, a Miles Magister, painted yellow and black. Several people had a flight, the plane being gone each time for about twenty minutes. The next name on the roster was Ginger’s and we all stood outside watching for the little plane to appear. It landed rather heavily, doing a high bounce then another and when it hit the grass for a third bounce we saw the undercarriage buckle then collapse completely. The plane slithered along on its belly churning up the grass, the propeller broken and some of the undercarriage sticking out of the top of the wings. No one was hurt and most of the lounging, war heroes came outside to guffaw. What this ‘wizard prang’ cost the poor, unfortunate owner and whether his plane ever flew again we never heard.
Old Bikes And Marital Bliss
During this same period I often noticed a neighbour, Mr Alex Brett, out polishing all sorts of very strange motorcycles on his front drive - ones with flat tanks, round tanks, even biscuit barrel shaped ones. Some of his machines had the kind of lights you would see on the wall of a pub that was trying hard to give an impression of being ‘Ye Olde Smuggler’s Inn’. When he rode up our street these machines always belched clouds of oily smoke and backfired a lot and seemed to vibrate uncontrollably - all this potential unreliability and tinkering I found very appealing.
Soon thereafter I acquired my first vintage motorcycle. After paying the required £2, I wheeled it home from my old hometown of Welling to our more recent and salubrious residence in Eltham. My newly purchased, 1922, 2 ¾ H.P. Douglas,
wasn’t yet running but was basically complete. It was a belt driven model with a front brake that reminded me of my very first bicycle, it simply rubbed on the wheel rim. The rear brake, being a little more sophisticated, jammed into the rear wheel, belt drive pulley. The machine had no clutch and a little gearbox that gave two speeds. Surprisingly, spare parts seemed easy to obtain, the machine having been built, originally, in huge numbers over a long period of time. With great enthusiasm I very quickly had the ‘Dougy’ restored and on the road. Yet again, Halford’s motor and cycle shops came to the rescue as they still sold the tins of carbide required for the acetylene lights.
The vintage Douglas proved a very reliable machine and I found myself often riding it to work through London traffic which was much lighter then, admittedly, but still a satisfying achievement. Eventually, I rode this same machine from Lands End to John O’Groats and back, a distance of around 1500 miles, all with only one very minor repair.
This primitive looking machine was a constant attraction - even to the police. I used this to my advantage, parking illegally, exceeding the speed limit, and other relatively minor misdemeanours. When apprehended by the law, the conversation would invariably turn to my interesting machine, with the crime soon forgotten. At most I would receive a friendly warning to drive a little slower, (my excuse here was always, “ Really? Oh I didn’t think it could go anything like that fast, officer”, or, “Gosh if only they had fitted speedometers back then, it would be so much easier to know your speed”). This kind of consideration always endeared you to the officer as being a reliable young chap and not one of the many motorcycle hooligans he normally spent much of his time apprehending.
One night, coming home very late, not realizing that my rear gas lamp had blown out, I turned into my road and was surprised that a flashing blue light followed me around the corner, (I assume the officer was unwilling to sound his siren at such an hour in a neighbourhood as genteel as ours). I stopped and he approached saying, “Sir, you are breaking the law by not displaying a rear facing red light.”
“Gosh, sorry, officer, it must have blown out,” I said cheerfully, opening the little hinged brass door of the lamp and, finding some matches I struck one, inserting it into the lamp, to be greeted with the characteristic pop as the gas ignited and the bright red glow reappeared. “S’truth” he exclaimed, “haven’t seen one of those for donkey’s years.” He waved me off saying, with a cheery laugh, “Keep them matches handy, son.”
Like many youthful motorcyclists I lived under the distinct impression that there was a direct relationship between one’s masculinity and the cubic capacity of your machine’s engine. So, on hearing that a 1000cc Matchless sidecar outfit was for sale locally, I immediately went round to investigate.
On removal of the protective tarpaulin I witnessed a 1922 Matchless Model H for the first time. Mechanically, this machine was very advanced for its era with many features that other manufacturers didn’t adopt for another 25 years. However, the overall impression was of a very primitive, early Edwardian design. The engine was a Swiss built monster of low revs but huge pulling power.
I asked its owner, Mr. Dick Herringe, if I might have a demonstration of the engine running, implying by this that I, a discerning purchaser, would thereby gain much insight into its mechanical condition. He answered that as it hadn’t been run for a couple of years and starting might be a problem. However, with just two heavy prods of the kick-starter it burst into life.
Should the Royal Navy have had, in the late war, a smoke screen cover equal to that which now quickly surrounded this machine, I truly feel that our wartime losses would have been considerably reduced.
Mr. Herringe assured me, over the clamour, that all that was needed was to ‘rev it up a bit more’ in order to burn off the excess oil that had gravitated to the crankcase. This I enthusiastically did. The smoke came now in an even greater volume, filling up the whole front garden and billowing on down the street.
Finally satisfied that my prospective purchase was a ‘good runner’ I switched off the engine, bringing peace and quiet back to the leafy suburban road, but only momentarily, as out from the thick oily pall of smoke came a hellion of a woman, fists raised, mouth wide and language foul. This person was most certainly of a type that my mother would have deemed, ‘common as muck’. For myself, being a little more tolerant, I would have assumed that this lady had had the misfortune of employment perhaps in a fish-market, the docks or some other place of arduous manual labour.
When finally I was able to separate the content of what she uttered, from the flowing tirade of obscenities, it became apparent that being a nice, hot summer’s day, she had opened all the windows to give the house a good ‘airing’, allowing herself also the rare luxury of a spell of sunbathing in the back garden. There, evidently, neighbours had called her and the local fire station to report swaths of smoke issuing from every window of her ‘burning’ house.
With no more ado I quickly paid the requisite £20 then, intimating the need to visit an ailing aunt in hospital, made a hasty retreat, leaving Mr. Herringe to his enviable life of marital bliss.
It was only upon learning, at a later date, that Mrs. Herringe was enjoying a short stay at the invitation of Her Majesty’s Prison Service, did I pluck up the courage to take possession of my new purchase. I also heartily commended Mr Herringe, pertaining to his speedy recovery from the domestic injuries he so lately sustained.
At this time my friend, Ginger Spalding, had, through misfortune or sheer carelessness, managed to demolish what had survived of the old BSA sidecar outfit, (the very one he had purchased for our New Forest camping trip the previous year). He had also broken his upper right leg. Now encased in a plaster cast, Ginger was getting around as best as he could on a pair of crutches and was thankful of any help of transportation for his various activities. On one such occasion I managed to stuff him into the capacious, double-adult sidecar of my ancient Matchless Model H, crutches and all, his plastered leg hanging out over the side. With another friend sitting on the pillion seat, I drove the great, lumbering, undulating heap up my road. When taking a left hand bend at what seemed a reasonable speed, the sidecar rose up above my head, leaving Ginger looking down at me and his stiff leg pointing skyward. The machine careened from side to side hitting both kerbs twice before I got all three wheels onto the ground at the same time. The rest of our journey was less eventful but not without incident.
For a reason that still eludes me, the insurance companies always regarded sidecar machines as a safer risk and adjusted their premiums accordingly. My only conclusion is that riders, finding out just how dangerous these contraptions were, would lock them away for safety’s sake thus reducing road usage to an absolute minimum.
I was lucky, or not so, depending on your viewpoint, to own a 1936 Sunbeam Model 95R, a machine I purchased from a rather frightening middle-aged woman who, until very recent times, had raced it in quite serious competitions. I paid the princely sum of £30 for this machine and soon after obtained another, a road-going model, Sunbeam 95L, (the L designating lights, for road use), making me the owner of two out of only three, known, Sunbeam 95s. Not a good prospect if spare parts were ever needed.
One Saturday night Derek Pratt and I decided to ride down on this impressive machine to a meeting of the South East Bentley Drivers’ Club, held as always at the Wheatsheaf, a pub in Chiddingstone Causeway. We were very nearly there, with just a mile or two more to go, when a fork in the lane appeared ahead of us. Not being familiar with the route I called back to Derek, seated on the pillion seat behind, trying hard to hear me above the roar from the Brooklands fishtail ‘silencer’, (a misnomer if ever there was one) to instruct me. I gained no audible reply. I called again, “Left or right?” Once again I heard nothing. By now the fork was upon us. Steering to the right I finally heard, “LEFT!” and tried to obey the command. Alas time was not on my side, my passage was neither left nor right but in between, taking us through a ditch, then a hedge of mixed native species, most of which I was unable to identify due to the rapid progress we were making at the time.
After disentangling the Sunbeam and our selves from the thorny copse we remounted and soon arrived at the pub. Battered and bleeding we mingled among the smart, tweedy dressed Bentley drivers, their posh girlfriends in ‘Monte Carlo’ scarves, and waffling conversations. Drinking from well-deserved, pint glasses of Fremlins bitter, we wandered the car park, looking at the Bentleys, re-telling our story with a surfeit of colourful expletives and exaggeration to anyone commenting on the rare Model 95 Sunbeam and its rustic decoration of grass sticks and mud.
At the time, I was working at Vickers Armstrong at Crayford, Kent and here, nightly, a standing start race took place from the factory gates - the works being so large that they commanded their own traffic lights. These acted as the starting line. On the green light’s appearance the centre of the town was filled with the roar of all the hottest bikes lined up on the first few rows. My Sunbeam was about equal to all but the very best tuned BSA Gold Stars and Triumphs. I commonly witnessed 90 to 100mph on my Sunbeam’s resplendent, but vibrating, 6” Smiths speedometer face, during these homeward races along the unrestricted Rochester Way. One such ‘burn up’ was the undoing of my rare machine; the engine decided to sieze up, all so quickly that I had no time to disengage the clutch. The damage caused was considerable, valves, piston and cylinder head all virtually ruined.
Or stretching stories of transportation to the limit
In 1959 I was twenty-one years of age and, at last, a skilled and qualified craftsman. This was only officially, mind; the truth was that my apprenticeship had not been very good, for the company had moved most of its important work to its new facility in Crawley, leaving those of us remaining in London lacking a good variety of work. However, with my apprenticeship over I could finally start to earn some decent money and pay my way instead of virtually living off of my parents.
I had received one week of ‘man’s pay’ and was nearly to the end of my second week when I came home on a dark and dreary, late October night to find a letter waiting for me from Her Majesty’s Government, Department of the Armed Forces and my poor little heart sank into my shoes - down somewhere among the fluff’s of various coloured wool and other unmentionable detritus. The letter demanded my appearance at Aldershot Barracks on December 9th in order that I might serve my queen and country for two years. What was so galling was that this was the very last, but one, intake ever for National Service and I had the misfortune to fall into it.
Many things had to be settled quickly and it felt quite as bad to me as a prospective prison sentence would have done. I may have liked the black and white war films at the Odeon and Gaumont cinemas, I might have been pleased that brave Tommie’s had saved my skin just a few years earlier but now I wanted to be a pacifist, a Quaker, a Tibetan monk; anything except a British soldier.
Everyone assured me it would be a ‘doddle’ in the Royal Army Service Corps, an outfit with less aggressive intentions - not one of your tough paratrooper mobs, not a front line infantry regiment, all bayonets, bullets and bullshit.
On the appointed day I made my sullen way to Falconwood Station sans beard but still retaining a moustache and with my pre-paid ticket I made my way via Waterloo to Aldershot in Hampshire. At Aldershot Station I disembarked with several other young men to find soldiers who appeared civilized and who greeted us without yelling or screaming, but speaking relatively politely, asking us to form an orderly line. We were taken by lorry to the Barracks - all named for 18th century British victories or the Generals who gained them. These barracks were also all of that period - old, cold, and very Spartan. Ours was Marlborough. We spent fourteen days at Aldershot where we were moulded into some order of men that moved as one and generally behaved themselves. If this was an indication of what was in store, then I felt I could perhaps tolerate my two years. I remember little of those two weeks except learning how to apply Blanco, Brasso and Cherry Blossom boot polish, learning to iron clothing, carry out basic drill and to accept that being called a nasty little man was close to a compliment.
At the close of the fourteen days each soldier had an interview with an officer who drew up an action plan as to where the conscript would go and what specialty he would eventually settle on. This would normally mean that if you were a cook you would be seen as most suitable for training as a garage mechanic and if perchance you were a garage mechanic you would not likely escape training to become a cook.
Quite out of the blue it was suggested that I might go to the ceremonial division of the Royal Army Service Corps. Although I knew little about this aspect of army life I had seen, on the television, the yearly Military Tattoo and Pageant at Earls Court where the soldiers, in their wonderful ceremonial uniforms, all gold braid and shiny leather, would go through their paces. Astride four horses pulling gun carriages they would perform all sorts of daring do, racing against each other, carrying dismantled field guns over brick walls and reassembling them to be fired. I assumed my good height and skinny, light frame, coupled with quite good posture and moderate intelligence, made for my being a possible candidate. It was the first time I actually felt better about my call-up incarceration. Alas, the very last thing checked was my medical grade where my fitness level deemed that I was under the level required. So began my long despair.
Soon, I was shipped off to Yeovil in Somerset along with a trainload of other despondent young men who, like me, had had deferment till they were twenty one and now faced what they had so long hoped would end before it came their time to serve - National Service.
Yeovil was drastically different. Here, the commissioned and non commissioned officers were pigs, the dross that the army were saddled with, the no hopers who, in a working life in the forces, had risen only to lance corporal - if they had been the cream of the crop, maybe corporal. These ‘sub humans’ one ability in life was to terrorize those under them. That was all they had to offer.
One particularly foul creature, Corporal Frost, our very own squad corporal, looked asian or some similar ethnicity, the sort of man who would have collaborated with the Japanese and done their dirty work for them. He was a sadist and daily gave us a living hell. He screamed obscenities into our ears and delighted in adding extra punishments that would ensure our required chores could not get done and therefore bring down on us even further retribution.
The Second Lieutenant in charge of our section was a new, officer graduate from Sandhurst, Lt. Aston-Phucksly, (perhaps that wasn’t his name, but it should have been,) a puffy lipped, privileged, public schoolboy, a kind of person who, in other circumstances, you would have happily punched in the mouth. But here, he was lord supreme and one punch would have you in Colchester military prison with an eventual, dishonourable discharge to look forward to. There were times when this seemed a tempting incentive, rather than a deterrent, to punching him.
Though our promised Christmas leave loomed joyfully on the calendar some inexplicable failure on our part saw to it that this leave was cancelled. We spent the holiday period at camp doing picket duty, day and night. Strangely, on Christmas eve, Corporal Frost had behaved quite pleasantly to us all day and it was later when, with a wink and a nod, he told us he would be ‘entertaining a young lady’ that evening in his room at the end of our billet. We immediately foresaw a dawning of possible blackmail. When Corporal Frost was ensconced with his ‘young lady’ we started a water fight throwing fire buckets of water over each other. This spread to other billets in the section. After a while the place was awash and eventually Frost appeared from his room and, in a surprisingly meek voice, asked us if we could keep the noise down a little. No retribution came our way the next morning, the only request from the corporal being that we refill all the fire buckets and replace them to their proper stations. It was during this time that it slowly dawned on us how things really worked.
The only other time that the commissioned and non commissioned officers were relatively pleasant to us was on the firing range when we were armed with the Army lorry driver’s favourite weapon, the Stirling Machine gun, while the officers had only whistles, clipboards and swagger sticks, we had these!
Following only a week of ‘square bashing’, I started to get painful cramps brought on by the ridiculous stamping of feet at every command in those rigid, heavy, leather boots the army provided. One morning on parade I came to a standstill and sank to my knees. Corporals Frost and Adkins screamed at me, threatening all sorts of retribution if I didn’t stand up straight but I simply couldn’t - the pain was that bad.
They sent me to the medical officer who had his surgery in the mornings and I waited a long time but eventually was seen. I could tell he took my plight seriously. He noted what the original officer at Aldershot should have noticed - I had seriously fallen arches. He did not offer any medication or help of any kind saying, simply, to ‘see how things would go’.
This, to me, was a green light for an intense effort at skiving. Every time we stamped our feet I would always grimace, sometimes staggering with the pain, real or imagined. I made sure at all times I never moved quickly, even when this worked to my disadvantage as, when we were dismissed for lunch, which always brought on a stampede to the cookhouse, I was always last to arrive, staggering into the dining hall, a pathetic shell of a soldier.
The first ray of hope came when, after a third visit to the M.O., I was ‘excused boots’. This meant you wore your plimsolls, not boots - and soldiers are not permitted to march in anything but boots. I felt good omens were in the offing and finally I received notice that I was to be medically discharged. I knew the corporals were up to my deceit but they were only nasty little corporals and a real live Medical Officer had written me off as useless.
And, useless I felt, limping along at the rear of a squad of smart soldiers who day by day were shaping up fast, looking their best with polished buckles, pressed pleats, shiny boots, a credit to their regiment, whereas I; pitifully plopped along behind the Platoon in Plimsolls. Failing to hear the barked commands I watched them disappear on the far side of the parade ground.
I had made friends with a Scotsman from Liverpool who was something of a melancholic person and when his spirits were very low he would produce a set of bagpipes and walk around playing sad dirges to accompany his sad feelings. Even the fact that he might one day march in a passing out parade to the Service Corps’s very own Scott’s Pipe and Drum Band did not cheer him up. He became increasingly morose when he learned that I would, most likely, not be in for the long haul, as I seemed to be his only real friend. Sitting with him on his bed one evening, polishing our boots, I asked him, “Surely there is something medically wrong with you that you could use to ‘swing the lead’, think hard, man.”
He thought a while then made plain he could think of nothing at all. When I pressed him further, acting more and more like his doctor, he admitted suffering a little from chilblains. “Chilblains” I exclaimed, then asked him to remove his socks and gave his feet a thorough examination; I had to confess that his problem was not of a serious enough nature to make his escape from the army likely.
I don’t know why, but in one combined thought I put together the dual circumstance that a pair of fire buckets sat close to his bed and that outside the ill-fitting window it was February weather at its very worst. I explained my plan of ‘treatment’ and although he lacked faith in its veracity, agreed to take part. Over a period of a few days, without fail, he sat on his bed with two buckets of water beside him, one hot and one cold. I required him to place his feet in the hot bucket for as long as he could tolerate, then plunge them into the cold bucket for a decent period. Following this the sash window would be raised and so instructed, he would dangle his feet out of the window until they were close to freezing solid.
The effect was quite immediate. His feet swelled alarmingly and took on a vicious, purple hue. After a few days of my treatment he was unable to put his boots on and only with the greatest difficulty was able to stand at all. With much difficulty he hobbled his way to the sick bay; reporting sick to the M.O.
The medical officer declared that he had never seen anything quite like it and prescribed first one, then another medication. These weren’t in the least effective, as we made a point of always flushing them down the toilet. Even the implied threat of a cure was countered with increased plunging and exposure to the elements; my friend soon found himself ‘on plimsoll’s’. The two of us staggered around in unvarying ‘pain’, artfully bemoaning the fact that we were unable to serve our Queen and Country, always last at the cookhouse, always bravely trying to keep up with our squad for we had not yet been excused full duty.
I also gained the friendship of a younger soldier in our billet. He was eighteen and pining for dearest Gwendoline, his first, own true love, whom he had left back in Croydon. He had also left behind another, Sally, in nearby Purley, a girl whom he had not quite held in such high esteem; though this hadn’t prevented him from having a prolonged sexual liaison with her. This young lady pestered him constantly, writing daily, twice as often as the dearest Gwendoline.
He, being a nicely brought up fellow from a good home, tried everything he knew to throw off Sally’s advances but without success; so, in desperation, late one evening, sought my advice. I considered his plight and ever helpful drew up a plan, assisting the young soldier in composing a letter to her using my superior knowledge of that which I should call, ‘English language as used by the lower working classes’, a form of language gained through my long exposure to that spoken in the shadow of Surry Docks and daily contact with life on the mean streets of Rotherhithe. When satisfied that the letter was of a strong enough nature to turn strawberries and cream into pigswill, he folded it and placed it on his bed to await its envelope, then proceeded to write a heartfelt letter to his true love, Gwendoline; for which he did not seek my assistance.
I am convinced that my plan would have proved most efficacious should he not have been in such haste to communicate his feelings of revulsion to one and undying love to the other.
Later the following day, in South Croydon, receiving the last post, Gwendoline’s mother, who had long wished for a better suitor for her cherished daughter and who, it appears, was in the habit of steaming open her daughters private letters, read, with considerable shock the plethora of foul, descriptive words that should have been delivered to Sally in nearby Purley.
Dearest Gwendoline made no contact with her soldier ever again, though her mother unsurprisingly did. So did Sally, quite understandably almost overcome by the flood of heartfelt, loving declarations from her young soldier, increased her ardour, writing now twice each day somehow overlooking the fact that though the envelope was addressed to her, the letter was not. She now delighted in the full knowledge that all her efforts to gain him for her very own had proved so worthwhile.
It was in this period that I, along with my billet mates, had fire duty on several consecutive nights where we were required to remain in our billet and, should the fire siren sound, were ordered to rush (rush being a relative term in view of my status of being ‘on Plimsolls) to the guardroom to find out the location of the fire then, in squads of four men, were expected to make all possible haste to the fire pulling fully equipped fire-carts.
One evening, while we were on picket duty, the siren shattered the peace of the night. Under such exciting circumstances I found it difficult remembering I was a cripple and to shuffle along as realistically as I could. We were informed at the guardroom that a fire had broken out at the cookhouse. On arrival we saw that smoke was indeed billowing out of one side of the building. We had practiced long and hard at becoming efficient at fire drill and in no time our squad was ahead of two others; having the big, three-inch hose already screwed up to the hydrant and the metal key in place. I, along with two others, was at the nozzle, two holding it, arms under and over, with the third bracing us with his full weight from behind; this was serious water pressure and could easily lift a single man off his feet.
Our man at the hydrant called out, “Water on!” - at the very same moment as out of the dark stepped an officer shouting, “Water off, just a trial run, well done lads.” If only he had shouted sooner. We felt the hose become rigid, straightening out from the force of the water pulsing through. We braced ourselves, for this was the first time we had operated with real water. The officer screamed out, “Water off!” but all was lost. The hydrant man had dropped the spanner in the dark and was fumbling to retrieve it. The water, now being reduced down through an inch and a half nozzle had incredible power and like an artillery shell hit the side of the cookhouse, ripping three, long boards away and starting to dislodge others as well as extinguishing the smoke grenade there, beside a sodden, junior officer, one Lt. Aston-Phucksly.
I can only assume that as we had performed our duty so quickly and efficiently, our enthusiasm was deemed excusable and we suffered no punishment, though our own corporal gave us a serious bollicking back at the billet.
Skiving And Car Valeting
My active duty was nearly at an end and I had my date of discharge, all that was required now was to keep out of trouble, keep up the cripple act and get away with doing as little as possible. During this period I did have to work in the cookhouse peeling thousands of potatoes and washing even more dishes, but this was a small price to pay.
Strangely, I did have some regrets at leaving as by now the rest of the inductees were through with the worst of the drill and were starting to go off in the day with the civilian driving instructors, being taught to drive the huge tank transporters and other Corps vehicles, something I would have liked to do.
It was on my very final day, with only two hours more to go and with my bags packed and my papers in order, that I was spotted across the parade ground by Sergeant Smith, a nasty, short, fat pig of a man. I had learned that, in order to be as inconspicuous as possible, it was important to keep on the move and always look purposeful. I had found that tucking some papers under my arm helped to make this activity look official; but on this occasion the method had failed me. Sgt. Smith balled out across the parade ground “Private Murphy, come ‘er.”
I walked in my usual, hobbling fashion towards him as he announced that I was to clean his car, inside and out. I gently protested that I was due to be gone from the camp at twelve-thirty but this didn’t dissuade him. There, outside his quarters, he pointed to his ill-kept, Hillman Minx car and then produced the requisite cleaning materials and bucket.
First, I cleaned the inside of his vile, little motorcar, full of cigarette packets, toffee wrappers and every other kind of filth and it stank of his smoking. The windows were coated with a film of oily nicotine and I doubted they had ever been cleaned before. It was when I was washing down the outside that the sponge slipped from my grasp and fell into the grit and gravel where the car was parked and when I went to wash it off I paused and wondered why I should want to do such a thing.
Thereafter, I scrubbed and scrubbed his little car; first dipping the sponge in the nice soapy water and then down into the grit, repeating the procedure as necessary, each time the gritty-ness seemed to diminish. I felt the chrome bumper and trim needed a good cleaning too.
Finally the job was done to perfection and I made my way to my empty billet, picked up my duffel bag and headed for the main gate as quickly as my Blind, Crippled Pew impersonation would allow. My papers were checked and out I went, a free man. It was raining hard but I couldn’t have cared, it was sheer bliss. My first act was to throw my safety razor into a ditch right across from the bus stop. On the train heading back to civilization I wondered whether or not it was still raining in Yeovil and, if so, how much lead-time I had ahead of Sgt. Smith in hot pursuit in his clean but freshly rusting, Hillman Minx.
This act of escaping the Army was the only thing my father ever praised me for.
At the time of my leaving for America, a planned stay of six months, I put into storage my eleven, vintage motorcycles and my latest model Honda machine. I waved my parents ‘goodbye’ and travelled from my local railway station in Eltham to Waterloo then on to Southampton, riding the special boat train that disgorged us directly at the dock where the original Queen Elizabeth was tied up, prepared to make one of her final voyages.
Crossing the Channel to Cherbourg, to pick up passengers boarding there, we then set sail for America. This was how you crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1963 and despite being a third class passenger, whose cabin was down at water level, it was all quite sumptuous and seen from my limited view of life, something of a fairy tale with wonderful meals served by attentive waiters on silver service.
I had, without trying, settled in with a young man from the north of England and two delightful Irish girls heading for California. We always met up at meal times to sit together and discuss the day’s experiences, all quite overwhelming, such ease and luxury. On one such occasion we were joined at table by a large, loud, obnoxious lady from Houston, who, at every opportunity, assured us that everything we mentioned would be superseded by what we were soon to witness in the United States, particularly in Texas. We attempted, in our different ways, to dissuade her from this annoying practice but to no avail.
Some short time before leaving England I had been most surprised when my good friend, Derek, a horology student, offered to sell me his much coveted ‘turnip’ watch. I was suspicious as to why he, so suddenly, had had a change of heart on the matter and asked for an explanation. He refused, waiting until I had handed over the requisite twenty-eight shillings, which I willingly did. Only then discovering that he had the good fortune to find and purchase another timekeeper even larger than the monster I now owned.
These very large-sized pocket watches were made, as much for use as travelling bedside clocks, as something to carry on one’s person, though in every respect they resembled a watch.
When the American lady had ground us down to near silence with her latest boasts, I grasped my opportunity, hauled on the silver chain, and with some difficulty extracted from the top pocket of my Harris tweed jacket my treasured ‘turnip watch’.
For several moments I dangled it in front of her. The watch rotated slowly on its chain, presenting the onlookers with a changing view of its manifold size and beauty. Carefully, in my very best, mock, ‘Oxford-English’ I pronounced, “But this, Madam, is the largest pocket watch in the entire world!”
Happily, she sat elsewhere for the remainder of the voyage, having found another table of starry-eyed young immigrants to impress, leaving me safe in the thought that, being a woman from Texas, she might never again travel to little ‘ole England to discover Derek Pratt, horologist extraordinaire, owner of the worlds largest pocket watch, (probably).
Entertaining the populace, little black children….
Now having immigrated to the United States, I continued with my interest in motorcycles to the extent that I found a motorcycle shop that liked the idea of employing an English mechanic to bolster its image as Norton dealers.
All went well as, having so much experience of my own old, worn out machines, my skills seemed more than adequate for the jobs that came in off the street.
One of our better customers was a quite wealthy man who had purchased two, identical, bright red, motocross, 250cc Hondas, one for himself and one for his son. He expected, and generally got, the very best of service. One afternoon when evidently he could spare little time, I was given the job of servicing his machines. He watched, hawkeyed, from the workshop’s rear door, making me very nervous. While attending to the many checks and adjustments required I drained the old engine oil into a pan. He made many demands that I do this, or that, correctly. Then, as I refilled one of the crankcases with oil he noticed that I repeatedly looked at the dipstick and added more. I tried to be nonchalant, but confess I was becoming increasingly puzzled as to why these sports models had such a larger oil capacity than the road model most of our customers owned. It was then I became aware of an increasing wetness permeating my trousers and found I was sitting in the centre of a golden pool of Quaker State 10-30 motor oil. The impatient and now irate customer, his face displaying an unpleasant smirk, suggested I replace the crankcase drain plug, lying nearby, before adding any more oil.
My own machine at this time was a Norton Sports 600cc, very fast and with wonderful acceleration and perfect handling characteristics. There was, with a substantial element of Nashville’s youth, a lust to race their hopped up cars against anything they perceived as a threat to their street credibility and overblown egos. This was particularly so on summer nights when they cruised the streets invariably accompanied by some mindless, gum chewing bimbo. If one stopped at a traffic light, in no time at all, a rumbling, vibrating heap of a Ford or Chevy, displaying a chrome exhaust and a jacked up front, drew alongside with the young, slack-jawed driver peering out under his baseball cap with that ‘wanna race’ look in his eye and mouthing things unintelligible, words lost in the miss-firing din.
During these encounters I would maintain my British reserve, pretending to be unaware of the situation, looking coolly ahead, despite the driver’s taunts, revving his engine and riding his clutch. But, at the very instant the lights changed, my hands and feet flew at the controls and off I went, easily ahead after just a few yards. At the next traffic light, sitting casually astride the smoothly running Norton, my hands lightly resting on the tank and with my ego intact, I would await the foolish challenger with a sideways glance and a casual ‘wanna race’ gesture.
Though my Norton SS 600cc was a most reliable machine it did, on one very cold morning, fail to start. I had very nearly exhausted myself attempting to kick-start the engine, but then, following a good running bump-start down my landlord’s long driveway; it did finally spring into life. As I turned into the road, still angry over its reluctance to start I gave a savage twist to the throttle, but the power was too much for the security bolts that helped to hold the rear tyre from slipping on its rim, they sheared off. The wheel then revolved independently inside of the tyre, cutting the valve stem off the inner tube and within a couple of yards the rear tyre was completely flat. I arrived at work very cold, very late and very angry on that winter’s day.
On this same machine I once approached Nashville from the south on an unfamiliar road and found myself soon stuck behind a yellow city school- bus. I decided, quite quickly, that my progress would not be inhibited by this lumbering vehicle and soon impressed the crowd of happy, waving, black children, looking from the bus’s rear window, with a surge of speed and acceleration. Had I travelled this road on a more regular basis however, I should have known that just beyond the front of the bus was a double bend of a tightness rarely encountered outside of an alpine terrain. Despite heroic efforts, I parted company with my machine. On the apex of this bend lived a black family in a run down shack of a house, where, from the front porch, they sat watching as their motley collection of mangy red dogs scattered in all directions - away from a shiny black and cream motorcycle sliding through the dry, summer dust of their yard, followed closely by a black clad, black helmeted stranger sporting a British flag, travelling most rapidly on his denim clad buttocks across their property. Both the machine and I came to rest at a point where the curve of the road cut close again and, as I dusted myself off and struggled to lift the machine, the bus slowly passed at an appropriate speed. The bus driver gave me a knowing look, soon to be followed by a rear window full of happy, black faces, waving and laughing.
I eventually traded my cherished Norton for a very sporty Honda, 305cc Super Sport on which, some time later, when returning from an evening class, I was hit by a pick-up truck driven by an out of state, penniless, unemployed, musical layabout from Oklahoma. My machine was a write off, so, too, nearly was I. It was time to move on.
Motor cars - being most boring, there’s only a little to tell
My first real contact with four-wheeled transportation was when friends, Derek and Ginger, purchased, second hand, their first car from Simmons’ Funeral Directors of Plumstead. Simmons had purchased this vehicle, a 1928 Rolls Royce, Phantom 1 hearse from new and it seemed most likely that it had never exceeded an appropriately sedate speed over its thirty-odd years of life. This of course all changed on the first evening of its new ownership. Just hours later it slipped down the ‘Mad Mile’ near New Eltham before the massed ranks of motorcycle hooligans who always were seated on the grassy banks south of the Dover Patrol Pub at a goodly speed of 70 m.p.h. Thirty years worth of accumulated carbon deposits loosened and ignited in the long and efficient exhaust pipe and silencer, flames and sparks issued most impressively from the rear.
This car was used extensively for transportation chores -having a huge amount of available space where the coffin bier had sat. (In a lift up compartment in the floor the original ‘license to carry bodies’ was found). We regularly transported our motorcycles to Brands Hatch for Saturday practice meetings and on other occasions it did regal service as a trans-porter on our camping trips.
On one such trip to our favourite New Forest haunts, Derek and Ginger demonstrated for me their time saving ‘changing driver routine’. This consisted of the present driver opening the offside door and climbing onto the out-side running board while still clutching the steering wheel, the relief driver then slid across from the passenger seat. This was not altogether a simple task as various brake and gear levers barred the way. However, when the new driver was firmly ensconced and in full control, the retiring driver would then work his way backwards, all around the car’s extensive system of running boards until he came around to the front passenger door, where he would re-enter the motor-car and settle into the comfort of his seat for a well earned rest.
These long journeys were completed, as far as was possible, non-stop, making simple, bodily needs, something of a difficulty. During night hours it was usual on deserted roads, to urinate out of the rear door of the hearse, standing on the little platform provided as an aid to loading the coffin. On such an occasion, emptying a particularly full bladder, I stood, unable to cease the flow, in the full glare of headlights from an, as yet, un-identified sports car. The car had appeared out of nowhere and gained rapidly on us along the fast, winding road, and roared around us at the very first opportunity of a straight stretch. I had just a fleeting glimpse of its smartly dressed driver sporting a cheese-cutter cap and his lady friend wearing, what we tended to call at the time a ‘Monte Carlo’ headscarf. With my free hand I gallantly gave them a cheery wave, sending them on into the night.
Ginger Spalding had gained intelligence that a Littlewoods store in central London was refurbishing their meat department and that some rather large and useful butchers’ benches were available - free for the taking. On a Saturday morning four of us drove to the emporium and loaded up two of these huge, solid Maple benches, leaving no room for the two of us who had ridden up in the back of the hearse. We decided there was nothing to do but lie on top of the benches and, adding to this sickly spectacle, we removed most of our clothing, all but our underpants. The two of us, rather skinny and generally unwashed, gave a most horrid, cadaverous appearance, lying utterly still as we were driven through the crowded midday streets of the better parts of West London.
A large part of the reason for owning a vehicle of this description was the ease with which one could offend the average citizen. Ginger and Derek, having the opportunity to purchase a particularly moth-eaten deer’s head, complete with antlers, mounted it on the hearse with an accompanying notice parodying a current advertising slogan for Dunn’s the London hatters, (‘If you want to get ahead, get a hat’), their notice reading ‘if you want to get a head get a hearse’. This seemed particularly galling to the citizenry and very many complaints were gratefully received.
On one genuinely wild, wet and misty night we returned from one of our many camping trips, the weather being so atrocious the driver was unable to see clearly through the windscreen. The co-driver was, however, able to assist him by standing on his seat and peering out into the deep gloom, using the narrow louvered ventilation slots at the very top of the windscreen. Somewhere in Hampshire, or was it West Surrey, it was difficult to know on such a night, a lone hitchhiker came into view walking dejectedly by the roadside with a soggy suitcase and a half raised, undecided thumb. We, all being true gentlemen of the road and seeing this be-draggled unfortunate, applied the brakes and came to a standstill some one hundred feet further on. We waited quietly in the huge, ancient hearse, the Rolls Royce engine purring, barely audible, and the dull light from the car’s interior penetrating not more than three or four feet into the swirling mists outside. The man finally appeared and was addressed by the front passenger through the steamed up window that was slowly lowered. A look of sheer terror spread across his face, his staring eyes like saucers, the full realization having come upon him as to his situation. In a stuttering, deep Irish brogue he asked if we were going near to West London. Told we were, he seemed stunned, like a man unable to escape his fate. The hearse having no side doors, he was directed to the back - where such a multitude had entered before him on their final journey to the other side. On climbing the step and entering the gloomy interior he closed the door behind him, then stumbled against my sleeping body and was told in the nick of time, “Oh, don’t mind ‘im, mate, e’s only asleep, just step over ‘im”. I slept soundly on. Apparently he spoke not a word for the entire journey, sitting on the floor, huddled in a corner. No doubt this poor ‘bog Irishman’ related the story of his first day in England many times, following his safe arrival, though never, likely, to be believed by his friends or relatives safely ensconced in the big brash city.
I had often been tempted to own a car, particularly so a 1926, three-litre, Sunbeam open- touring motor- car, parked in a local used car lot for a hard to believe price of £184.00. I never succumbed, relying instead on my many friends who owned all kinds of interesting vintage cars, gaining for myself the regular enjoyment without incurring the considerable expenditure necessary. Among my circle of friends, Doug Lovell was unusual in that he bathed quite often and, of all things, stayed in on Thursday nights without fail to iron his clothes, an activity that neither I, nor any other friend had ever heard of. Doug was always impeccably dressed. Whenever he drove his 1933, open sports Riley, he would wear a Harris Tweed jacket with matching cheese-cutter cap, a silk cravat, cavalry twill trousers and highly polished brown shoes.
On Wednesday nights he would call at my house to take us to the Cutty Sark pub in Greenwich where our area of the Vintage Sports Car Club regularly met. It was always a good evening of conversation, one of enjoying the gathering of cars.
In summertime one could sit outside in the evening light with a drink, a most civilized way to spend one’s time. Doug, though a man who cultivated an air of sartorial elegance, had, equally, a propensity to drink more than was wise, only beer but in excess. One warm, summer’s night after closing time a few of us stood leaning on the iron bollards that formed a barrier along the Thames river-path outside the pub. Doug suddenly felt a call of nature and made to descend an old set of stairs that led down to the water’s edge, despite our warnings not to do so. On his return upwards he evidently encountered a missing or slippery stair, lost balance and fell from the green slimy steps into the foul and stinking water of the Thames. We heard first the clatter of his polished shoes then a resounding splash, followed by a stream of bubbly expletives coming up from below. By the time we reached him he had waded the waist-deep, watery mud as far as the bottom step. Some primeval instinct prevailed and none of us offered Doug a helping hand and, as he mounted the final step, it became apparent that this had been a wise decision. My usually dapper friend was covered thick with filth from head to toe, even to his waxed, handle bar moustache; his cheese-cutter cap alone was untainted. The stench was indescribable. His friends, finding him otherwise okay, quickly departed leaving me to help scrape off the worst of the muck. Despite the journey from Greenwich to Eltham being a mere five or six miles distance, I can truly call it one of heroic endurance, sitting alongside Doug Lovell, who looked and smelt like the world’s largest catfish.
My first ownership of a motorcar was in the United States, where I felt the need for something in which to transport such things as sheets of plywood, tins of paint, carpets, bedding, tables, chairs and children. I had found motorcycles were not entirely suitable for the purpose, particularly in busy, downtown traffic. A friend of my landlord was a car salesman working at a very posh sports-car dealership. Here, in part exchange, they had taken in a car that evidently was something of an embarrassment to their up-market image and they wished to dispose of it as quickly as possible from the premises. With this knowledge in mind I made an offer even lower than the $374, give away amount, displayed on the windshield. This they accepted. The 1960 Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon was mine.
Without a doubt this was the largest station wagon the world had ever seen, around a quarter of an acre of pale, robin’s egg blue bodywork embellished with lashings of chromium plated strips and other decorative features, some of which had long parted company with the car, leaving ruddy silhouettes of their original designs on the sun bleached paintwork. The vehicle had the width of a truck and the length of a small bus, its huge bulk pushed along by a monstrous 300 H.P 354 cubic inch engine that swallowed gasoline like a white-water sinkhole. My new motorcar had road-holding characteristics rather akin to a blancmange wrestling a jellyfish. Every ride was a nauseating, almost nautical experience. Out of necessity, virtually everything was power assisted and the only improvement I could perhaps have suggested, was that the opening of doors, hood and gas-cap could also have benefited from some form of this mechanical assistance. It had, of course, automatic transmission, managed by a hugely impressive chromed lever, operating most of the car’s functions. So many confusing operations could this control perform that, when seeking reverse gear or some other manoeuvre, you could find yourself just as likely enjoying a change of radio station, or the seats reclining to form a bed. It would be niggardly to say of this car that it had an ‘impressive’ steering wheel, the object controlling this behemoth was no less than a ‘deep-dish command wheel’ of such size, one’s arms were stretched widely, giving even a skinny immigrant the appearance of a hunky, corn feed, full blown American. However impressive one’s appearance might be, shoulder to shoulder, this was not matched in the vertical plane, the wide bench seat being so soft and yielding, it ensured that any driver weighing in excess of 25 pounds sank so deeply into its pliant sprung interior that the greatest difficulty was experienced attempting to see above the dashboard.
The elderly suffered especially, during this era of gargantuan automobiles. A look in your rear view mirror on almost any outing would reveal you were being pursued by an arc of blue rinsed hair standing above the top half of yellow sun glasses, this all viewed through the spokes of a massive steering wheel. Should the elderly driver, following, be male, little more than what resembled the dome of an egg rose above the wheel, with a contorted face peering between the heavy spokes. I do believe that those wartime viewing contrivances used in the trenches, to prevent soldiers being shot should they raise their heads above the parapet, could have proved a popular accessory with all but the tallest members of the elderly motoring population.
The disadvantage of my automobile’s large engine was that in cold weather it took an inordinate amount of time before it become hot enough to run smoothly. Since most of my journeys were of short duration it became my habit to start the car’s engine and let it run while I ate my breakfast, previous to going the few miles to downtown Nashville to deliver something at a foundry or pick up supplies.
It was on such an occasion, enjoying my bowl of cornflakes, I heard an awful rending sound, soon followed by a tumultuous explosion of noise. Investigating the source of this sound I went to the front of the house. Here I found my Ford missing from the driveway. A short search revealed that it had disappeared into the garage-workshop, carrying the doors with it – only stopped by half a ton of cast iron band-sawing machine. It would seem that as the engine warmed up and started to run a little faster, the accompanying vibrations had shaken the impressive transmission control lever from its ‘park’ position to ‘drive’, and the 354 cubic inch engine had taken all in its path with ease.
(Well - Maybe)
Barry Murphy died on August 15, 2011. There is a wonderful obituary crafted by his son that the reader should see. It contains music, text, and video clips and is extremely interesting. Go to http://bigmikeydread.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/barry-michael-murphy-a-musical-obituary/
Contact Mary Murphy
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