Driving used to be a pleasure. Right now I'm inching forward in first gear, watching the tail lights of the car in front flicker on and off, tasting the traffic fumes like bitter porridge, steaming in this damp, heavy heat, seeing yet another red light up ahead, yet another set of road works, waiting, waiting - moving - waiting. Where's the pleasure now?
And then motorbikes come skimming by, dodging through the traffic, weaving in and out with uncanny agility, and I watch them with a combination of resignation and faint resentment, moving up to the front of the jam. And then they're off when the lights change - like that! - with a snarl or a growl, off into the distance. That's when it strikes me. Driving to them - or riding, rather - is still a pleasure.
I'm on my way to the Ace Cafe on the old North Circular Road, just off Hangar Lane in Stonebridge, London. Back in the Fifties and Sixties, Saturday evening, thousands would turn up here, from all over. They'd sit around in the steamy cafe and drink tea and smoke fags. Or they'd hang around in the car park, "shooting the breeze", talking about bikes usually, offering advice, asking questions, bragging, joshing, having fun. And then there were the races. West to Hangar Lane and back. Or east to what was then the Neasden roundabout (it's an underpass now), doing a ton along the S-bends through the iron bridges. A lot of bikers were killed. Only they weren't called bikers then. They weren't even called Rockers in the early days. They were "the Lads".
The Ace closed down in 1969. It was the end of an era. Young people could afford cars now. Why ride around on a dirty old bike, when you can sit in comfort and listen to music? Or if you wanted a bike it was more likely to be Japanese. You don't wear black leather on a Japanese bike. You wear an all-in-one jumpsuit, bright like an ice-cream sundae.
The demise of the Ace Cafe reflected the loss of interest in motorbikes as a means of transport and the decline of the British motorcycle industry. The few bikers left on the road, the old-fashioned sort - the diehards - were seen as an anachronism, as faintly ludicrous somehow. Most of the Lads had settled down. They had jobs, wives, mortgages. They drove whatever cars they could afford, to work and back. After that the cafe building had a variety of other uses. Recently it was a tyre place. It still is a tyre place in the week. But now, and for the weekends at least, it's the Ace Cafe again, once more a hangout for bikers.
Last year saw the highest motorcycle sales for 12 years. In all, 120,416 bikes were sold, a 36 per cent rise over the previous year. Biking is back, and in a big way. More teenagers are riding bikes. More women. More young men. And - surprisingly perhaps - more older men too, men in their forties or fifties, greying, balding, going back to biking after all these years, or taking to bikes for the first time, looking for something "out- there" they no longer find in their ordinary lives. These are the "born- again" bikers. A phenomenon.
I pull into the side road next door to the Ace. I don't want to risk trying to park up in the car park. Too many bikes. Rows and rows of them, gleaming in the sunlight. Every kind of bike. Old British bikes - Nortons, Triumphs, BSAs, lovingly restored, gorgeously polished. BMWs, all growling efficiency. Trikes. These are customised monsters, really cut-down cars with handlebars instead of a steering wheel. Harley-Davidsons, with their distinctive, low-slung shape, the epitome of American cool. Japanese bikes. The other riders call these "plastic rockets" or "plastic missiles". The British bike owners call them "Jap Scrap". Which is ironic given that these bikes always were more efficient - faster and more reliable - than their British equivalents. Hence the demise of the British motorcycle industry.
I must admit I'm intimidated at first. What am I doing here, pulling up in a Mini? I know nothing about bikes. And bikers always had a certain reputation. Well, they just look hard in all that black leather. I quickly get out and cross the forecourt to get a cup of tea, hoping that as few of them as possible have seen the connection. I'm trying to deny all responsibility for that little yellow Mini parked up over there.
I'm sitting indoors cooling off, when an kind-faced old chap comes in to pick up his leathers. He's talking about his bike. He's saying it's no good on the motorway. "It was designed for the North Circular," he says. "It only wants to go at 55. I can push it up to 80, for overtaking. But then I have to keep listening to it to make sure nothing has broken."
I say, "Do you come here every week?"
"Yes," he says, "of course. The wife knows, it's my drug. Luckily I've done a lot of work this week, putting up shelves, so she didn't mind me coming out. But she knows I couldn't live without it."
And then he's wrapping the white silk scarf around his neck and pulling on his helmet, pressing in all the studs on his heavy-weight jacket up to his neck, slipping the goggles over his eyes. Anonymous. From a kindly old chap to a deadly looking biker with the aid of a few studs.
Outside the bikers are posing about. It's part of the scene. There's a couple of young Rockers with their Triumphs. They can't be much more than 20 years old, but they've got the Rocker style off to a tee. Slicked-back hair with a quiff. White T-shirt. Key chain hanging from their belts, and the obligatory handkerchief tucked into the back pocket. Most of the Rocker style has a practical basis. The handkerchief is there so you can wipe your hands after fiddling with your bike.
Later I'm talking to Colin. He's in his forties, perhaps, with closely cropped, thinning hair. Without his leathers he doesn't look at all like a biker. He looks like a shopkeeper. Which is what he is, in fact. He owns a shoe shop. He rides a Harley-Davidson. He's been riding for about a year now, which makes him a true born-again. I say, "So what is it about bikes?"
"That's easy," he says, with a certain sparkle. "Got rid of the wife. Bought a bike."
I want to know why he rides a Harley. "It's the old posing thing," he says. "The louder the better. People turn round with a Harley. And women like 'em too. Loads of birds."
There's a couple of trikes pulling in. One of them is a cut-down Reliant Robin driven by an old geezer with a ponytail, wearing a camouflage jumpsuit. No helmet. You don't have to wear a helmet with a trike. He's in his fifties at least. Bikers can get away with anything, it seems, and it doesn't matter how old you are.
Meanwhile, the young Rockers are set to go. They've got their girls with them, also dressed in Fifties style, but with added Nineties accoutrements, like nose studs. They're pulling on their helmets, fastening their jackets. Part of
the ritual. Then they kickstart the bikes and there's a juddering roar. The girls climb up on pillion (some things don't change) and they're off. Now I understand where the expression "just for kicks" comes from. Kickstarting the bike is the prelude to the fun. Then I speak to Womble. He's a proper old biker, shaved head and shades, leather jerkin, grease-stained jeans. "Third-generation biker," he says. "My dad was a Rocker. Mind you, I can't get him down here. I even offered to drive. He won't leave the East End anymore." Mark, the proprietor comes up, collecting empty cups. Mark is a Rocker, with all the gear. Slicked-back hair and sleeveless jacket. He says, "I'm doing my waitressing bit." "So where's your pinnie?" asks Womble. "I save that for the bedroom." "That's what I'd heard," quips Womble, archly. And they both laugh. David Taylor is Sam Taylor Wood's dad. She's one of the new Britart pack, an associate of Damien Hirst. Actually, I didn't meet David in the Ace Cafe. He came to visit me at my house, pulling up in his customised trike, a cut-down VW Beetle. It's a work of art - electric blue with glistening chrome. And the sound! A nasal grumble, like a deep-hearted growl in the bowels of the Earth. He's the laid-back sort of biker. Easy Rider-style rather than The Wild One, with a neat goatee and grey hair. Very calm and clear-eyed. I say, "What do you call yourself? Are you a biker?" "Not by profession," he says. Explains that he'd been a biker in his youth. Started in '59 or '60, but sold his last bike in '65. After that it was the mortgage thing. Wife, kids, job. (He's a surveyor). But then he took to bikes again about 10 years ago. So he's not born-again anymore. I ask him what it was about biking. "The camaraderie," he says. "You meet some really nice people on a bike. If you're anywhere on the side of the road and a bike goes by, nine times out of 10 he'll stop to see if you're all right. You don't get that with car drivers. It's also a cowboy thing. Like you're an outcast, riding off into the sunset." He's a member of the Nightriders' Motorcycle Club. Most bikers belong to one club or another. (Womble is a Celtic Warrior.) And that's maybe where the strongest appeal lies. Riding off in a pack to some long weekend. Hundreds of bikes. The roar of the engines, hiss of the road. David talked about a cafe he used to go to. "There was a dip in the road, so you'd hear this roar before you saw the bikes. And then it was like the Ghengis Khan hordes coming out of the East. And you could be part of that." Anyway, back to the Ace Cafe and the conversation with Womble. He tells me a story about his eight-year-old daughter, how they were at a rally and she was sitting by the fire. It was very late, and someone came to talk to her. "Does your dad know your up this late?" he said. "Only, if you was my daughter I'd be worried about you." "But these are all bikers," she said, indicating around. "I'm safe with bikers. They'll look after me." "I nearly cried when I heard that," says Womble.
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