TALES FROM THE YEARS SPENT POLISHING
Chapter 15: The wind of change
We looked alike, we talked alike, we did exactly the same things, yet in our own minds we were individuals! There was no group identity apart from individual gangs. Terms like Bikers, Ton up boys, Greasers or Coffee bar cowboys were just terms created by Fleet Street.
Looking back through the haze of time it nearly always seemed that the sun was always shining. Of course only the extremes of pleasure and pain, the comfort of a warm evening sun with a girl pressing herself into your back as you swept round empty lanes or the misery of defrosting your fingers after a hard winter's enduro remain in your memory. Dull uneventful times fade into oblivion.
We arrived at the Cellar on the bridge at Windsor. Rows of gleaming bikes with chrome and highly polished aluminium were lined up along the side of the river Thames. We parked ours along with the best machines.
There was an unwritten hierarchy as small bikes and those ungainly little scooters parked round the side our of the floodlights. A change had gradually taken place. On each dual seat now rested a brightly painted crash helmet. Due to media and parental pressure, a new law was about to be passed making helmets compulsory. For months now most of us had already adopted them. It was vanity that was the motivation rather than a notion of safety.
At first crash helmets were regarded as a bit sissy unless you were racing in which case the pudding basin ruled supreme. My father who wore only a cloth cap with the peak turned backwards and a pair of goggles on his head in his motorcycling days suddenly turned on the pressure. He was aware that my 650 was a vastly different animal to his belt driven New Hudson with its basket weave wicker sidecar that he courted Mum with. He insisted that I wore an old dispatch rider's helmet that was given to me by my uncle Ted from his army days. I would don it until the end of our road then park it in the hedge until I returned at night when I would retrieve it and wear it back to my home.
The only helmets on the market were Kangol made with cork with a peak like a Donald duck beak! These were OK for the police on their Noddy bikes (LE Velocettes), but any self respecting young rider would not have been seen dead in one.
Then came the Space helmet and we all rushed out to get one. This helmet covered your ears on a parky November night. It looked like an American air force jet pilot's head gear. Finally it offered an opportunity for personalised regalia in the form of badges or artwork. Mine was painted bright red with a chequered flag stripe across the top. Alan started with red, yellow and orange flames but when he got his SS Norton, reputedly the fastest production bike at the time capable of 120mph, his helmet became a more sober silver with Norton SS emblazoned on the front. Roy who rode a Triumph Trophy had stars and stripes painted on his similar to the rider in a world record motorcycle attempt at Bonneville salt flats USA who also used a Triumph. Bill, who at the time was a builder and decorator, just tipped the remains of paint pots over his helmet making a multi-coloured mess of dribbles and streaks over the whole surface!
The wearing of helmets gave the opportunity for gang insignia. Gangs started to identify themselves with with death heads on their helmets and jackets or wheels with wings.
With the onset of gangs inevitably competition ensued. If you arrived at traffic lights alongside lads from another gang, there would be a high speed blast off with the rev. counter climbing near the red at each gear change. This would often result in riders still abreast with each other at 80mph as big British bikes were all very similar in performance. It really became a test of nerves to see who would throttle back first because of safety and the traffic conditions. At first this was fun and taken in the spirit of friendly rivalry but eventually gangs polarized and the American style 'chicken run' stunts took place fired by films and lurid account in the tabloid press.
The cellar was crowded, as darkness crept across the sky and forced the sun to dip westwards behind Windsor castle, a chill breeze got up from the Thames. People moved into the already packed interior of the little coffee bar. Bill and I elbowed our way to the counter to get Pepsis. We looked round for any unattached talent before making our way back outside to sit on the rails by the river. As the mesmerizing current of the water flowed endlessly past, slowly the unspoken reality dawned on us both; we were out of place. There we sat in our well honed black leathers, clean cut and sharp. We surveyed the rest. Most lads wore ex-RAF flying jackets with yellowed sheepskin, scuffed elbows and dangling buckles. The bikes, although big, were not so uniform. Some, like ours, had clip-ons, some had Vincent straight bars and others had enormous cow horns or ape hangers. Also the preposterous choppers were arriving on the scene. Studded waistcoats and tartan cowboy shirts added to the mix. Hair was crew cut, quiffed with sideburns or long straggling locks.
We went to relieve ourselves, reluctant to push our way back into the building to the toilets we went round the back into the blackness. On our way two bikers brushed past us and we clashed shoulders, exchanged glances and moved on. In the dim light of the rear of the cafe amongst the dustbins we stopped and stared. Tied spread eagle to the iron railings and gagged was a girl in a leather waistcoat and blue jeans. Her white blouse was unbuttoned and tell tale oily fingerprints stood out on the white material circling her breasts. I rushed forward and pulled down her gag. "Sod off", she hissed as I fumbled with the knots round her wrist. "Keep your bleeding nose out of it, I don't want to be let go!" I was stunned, in a dilemma. She was pretty and my knight in armour instincts were aroused, but she was displaying all the wrong signs! I forget what was said but obediently we returned to the bright, noisy front of the cafe.
Perplexed we saw the unsavoury couple of youths dive back down the side of the cafe into the gloom whispering and flicking a fag into the river below. Hearts pounding we decided to go and see what was afoot . Before we could act, they returned arm in arm with the girl grinning and laughing. When she caught sight of us she shot us a disdainful look and disappeared into the smokey interior.
- Tony Sheppard