Thursday, December 31, 2009


Another in my series of essential/wonderful reading for long winter nights. This story appears in the anthology of motorcycle writing 'Twistgrip' (1969, George Allen & Unwin) edited by the incomparable L.J.K. Setright (pic below), who wrote for decades about cars and motorcycles in a wonderful prose. The author of the following short reminiscence is identified in 'Twistgrip' only as 'R.B.'

Amende Honorable, by 'R.B.'

"On the hill above Windsor, by the tower where Henry VIII made that splendidly practical protest at the price of meat, our sidecar outfit stopped owning to some trifling derangement. I ran her into the kerb, surrounded myself with the nebula of tobacco smoke which is so helpful to diagnosis, and fell to work with a wrench.

Vaguely I became conscious of a Presence, top-hatted and short-coated, aged possibly fourteen, moving in arcs about the side of my machine that faced the pavement, whose whistling implied a dearth of desert fruit (I'll not name them!).
Coldly he eyed my much-travelled sidecar, and then - brassily, provocatively, using our faithful 'bus's name - he said, 'Not much of a Royal!'[1] and cocked an eye to see what should follow.

This was new. Those several thousand miles a year take us by many public schools. Charterhouse has a keen eye for maker's transfers or the build of a tank; Harrow affects detachment, but will steal up and make diffident enquiry; Marlborough has a nice ear for exhaust notes; and the school Ardingly way has two who risked a late call-over to fetch me a spring link from the village (my appreciation, translatable into many tins of bloater-paste, was only reluctantly accepted). So I had hoped for better things from Eton.
Some cell in my brain, sealed these twenty years, opened, and I spoke to my passenger, honey-smooth.

'Strange,' I temporised, with the air of one whose withers are unwrung, 'Strange about Eton. Classic foundation, great name, many famous old boys. But' - I italicised darkly - 'there's something dreadful. You'd never believe it!'
Those pink ears twain under the black silk brim grew yet a shade pinker. Concealing a smile, my passenger played up nobly.
'Really?' she said, with just the right shade of polite surprise. 'I've always thought...' trailing away into nothingness, just like that.
I leaned forward, and spoke in a rattling whistper which the libeller could hardly miss: 'Their First Eleven bowl's under-arm!'[2]
'NO??!!' said Millie, registering horror.
'I've seen them,' as one who lets the truth be wrung from him.
Top-hat had gone the colour of a new cricket ball.
'Not the remove, mind you,' I added, judging him that high. 'The First E-le-ven!'
We let it go at that, but the silence while I put my tools away was more than eloquent. I saw his eye fall on our badge, the insignia of a public school motor cycling club which has a reputation, but not for sloth. His little heart was bursting to repel my foul insinuation, but pride and the memory of the fact that he had provoked the jousts forbade it.

I trod on Bucephalus's [3] kick-starter, and she burst into life with that exultant bellow which is all her own, descending on a control into a hollow mutter which suggests the confidences of a mastodon.
He came round into the road; he had to. Those impish blue eyes opened at the sight of our big, black iron lungs, and looked on interrogation almost wistful.
'Five Hundred Mile race type,' I explained, mercifully. 'One of LeVack's special jobs. Sixty easy.'
The look changed to positive reverence. 'I didn't mean,' he blurted, as the clutch snuggled home. 'Nor did we,' I laughed back at him.
'Floreat Aetona!' "

[1]: Clearly, the reference is to a Royal Enfield v-twin of mid-20s vintage, as per the photo; the story is dated by reference later to Herbert LeVack as being from the late 1920s.

[2]: What follows is a dark discussion of Cricket, a game which is a complete mystery to me, but the meaning of the conversation is clear!

[3]: Alexander the Great's horse, Bucephalus, the stuff of legend for his strength, endurance, steadfastness in battle, and intelligence.
It was common for riders of Great Machines to name their motorcycles in the prewar era (in England at least). One thinks of T.E. Lawrence's Brough Superiors, named initially 'Boanerges' (the twin 'sons of thunder'), and later models 'George I-VII'.

In our age of disposable motorcycles, it's difficult to imagine the relationship which existed between man and motorcycle at that time. The beast needed the attention of its owner to give its best, then as now, a symbiosis which generated feelings of affection, and frustration or outright betrayal at times, when the old girl let you down.

You can really feel the Life in motorcycles from the Vintage era, with their smells, wheezes, sulks, coughs, 'petulant choofs', and mighty, inspiring roars when all is going well. A name is fitting.


Jerry Smith said...

When I was Features Editor at Cycle Guide magazine in the mid 1980s, LJK (who we cheekily called simply Leonard) was a regular columnist. His copy would arrive monthly and, as was standard practice, shortly thereafter make the rounds of the editorial staff for editing and proofing. More than once we all read the column from start to finish and still had no idea what it was about. But we all agreed the prose was magnificent.

Grandpa Jimbo said...

It sounds a little like poetry spoken in prose. I don't recognize many of the words, but then, I from that country "separated from Britain by a common language". Jim A.

vintagent said...

@Jerry; agreed, a gifted writer, a real 'character', and quizzical at times.

@Jimbo; exactly! You've captured what I love about that piece; I know nothing about cricket, and didn't grow up under the English class/public school system. None of that matters if the writing is good.

knossos said...

damn that's great stuff. please post more! and/or let us know the titles so we can buy them for our own pleasure reading.

happy happy new year

Jorge Pullin said...

Here is one of those Royals in action (with period correct dress!). The early 1920's model differs little from the 1915 shown in the video.


daveinnola said...

having been to eton , well rather lived there , 56 eton high st , in my three years of living there i never saw a eton boy in uniform cross the river , i saw members of the etonian motorcycle club vist the cellar cafe and talk bikes with the ruffian cafe racers ,

jngr75 said...

Reading this ensconced in, as it were, the cosy mid-winter warmth of Los Angeles in the suckling days of our new decade, with my own newly tricenarian ironhorse masticating its mechanical oats in the stall downstairs, all i can think as I enjoy this post is that the vast majority of my dear native Usonian friends, whelped with neither the benefit of 'Public' school, nor the boon of the great sport of Cricket, will read the post above with absolutely no clue at all what the f&*k it was about. And that makes it even more entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul:

Thought you might like to see this column I wrote for the Calgary Herald's Driving section:

Also trust a package arrived for you?

All the best in 2010, and keep turning out those motorcycle stories. You're incredibly good at it.

Kind regards, Greg

Greg Williams

Anonymous said...


T'was interesting to see your reference to dear
old Leonard aka Long John Kickstart, in the
recent Vintagent. His comments about those
particular public schools [I went to a vegetarian
one in the glorious Cotswolds] -- for, just like
the Colleges at Oxbridge, they all have a very
different flavour -- was not far off the mark.

Funny thing, but most p/schools -- to their great
shame, no doubt -- have produced the odd
famous motorcyclist. Hailwood at Pangbourne,
Les Archer at Churchers, Cathcart at Malvern,
and so on. Due the traditional British social
structure a far greater proportion of successful
car racers were incorporated at boarding school.

FYI Leonard's best chum in the 2-wheel world was
David Dixon. Jenks had very little time for LJKS,
stating that he persistently "outposed" everyone!

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

I first came across LJK’s column in ‘Bike’ magazine as a spotty 13-14 year old. I couldn’t understand and a word of it and often questioned the relevance to motorcycling.
I began to appreciate the breadth of LJK’s knowledge and experience and recognise a true British eccentric in the best sense that only this country can produce.
When reading the copy of some of today’s ‘popular’ celebrity automotive commentators I recognise a glimmer of them aping a bygone style, unfortunately their audience prefers a ‘fast food’ rather than ‘gourmet’ presentation.

Jon Dudley said...

There was a wonderful Radio 4 programme where LJKS and Brian Sewell discussed the aesthetics of antique fowling pieces. Esoteric and high-flown quality conversation with each trying to outdo the other with his erudition. I think it probably helps to have had a classical education to fully understand LJKS' writings...and I didn't!