My late father’s favourite saying was “you’ll never learn younger”.
He pronounced learn as if saying the town ‘Larne’. What he meant was basically not to be afraid to try something new and ‘give it a go’. Nowadays it seems that unless you have had extensive training in virtually everything you attempt it is better if you don’t even try. Failure is something to be feared and avoided at all cost. Children are not allowed to fail lest they suffer irreparable psychological damage. Competitive School league tables ensure that those who are deemed not to be able to reach the highest grades are excluded from taking those subjects in the top schools. Failure is not an option. Being seen to fail is perceived as being the ultimate in disgrace. This is a very strange state in that every Olympic winner fails to attain their targets 99.99 percent of the time.
Passing examinations is now the primary reason why you attend school, not to be taught anything useful. My next door neighbour is a technology teacher and is so bound by health and safety regulations that he avoids letting students do all but the most basic practical tasks. He amazed me by telling me that most of his students are so uncoordinated they can’t even use scissors, let alone run with them.
My father had left school at fourteen. His mother had died when he was young, he was one of seven children and he needed to ease the financial burden on his family and get a job. With no qualifications, he moved out and made his own way in life. If you have a fourteen year old son, think about this. As I have grown older I often do.
So, if something needed done and he didn’t do it, it didn’t happen.
Growing up, I of course had no comprehension of what he had gone through. Like all children I assumed he was just someone to call on when I needed help -because he could do anything.
He cut our hair with hand operated ‘shears’, installed plumbing, plastered, built blocks and repaired engines. It was also probably true to say that his handiwork wasn’t always pretty, some minor engine parts were always left over after a rebuild, and that he definitely wasn’t big on Health and Safety.
One evening we were visiting my dad’s brother. He was suffering from crippling toothache. “Get me some pliers” my father said. The whiskey my uncle was using to ‘self- medicate’ served as a sterilization medium for the pliers which were then inserted into my uncle’s mouth. I thought they were just messing about the way siblings do. My uncle managed to say “DON’T…”before my father was standing with the offending tooth in the jaws of the pliers. True, my father had some form in that area in that he was very adept at cutting piglets’ teeth with snips.
…but even so.
It has been said that toothache is only second to the common cold in terms of illnesses and before the advent of modern dentistry many spent their entire lives in constant agony. Elizabeth the first, George Washington and Louis XIV were all famous sufferers of toothache.
In fact Barbers and blacksmiths were the teeth pullers of their day, so maybe my dad was only following in tradition.
As we age there is a tendency to avoid anything new. It has been suggested that this is the reason why time seems to pass more quickly as we age. Or more simply, by just continuously repeating actions there is no way to differentiate our day, week or year.
I was pondering all this as my old mobile decided it was time to shuffle off its electronic mortal coil and join the ever increasing choir of the ranks (mobile phones) invisible at the back of the cupboard. It had served me well. I only had to charge it once every 2 or 3 days. It was compact, fitted easily in my pocket and had outlasted the so called South Korean ‘smart phone’ that had been included in my last eighteen month contract. That phone had cost me £120. I had broken the screen whilst it was in my pocket and the cost of a new screen was £150.
I selfishly decide to forgo that pleasure even though South Korea needs all the financial help it could in dealing with Kim Jong- un and Donald Trump.
…But I was still in debenture to a national communications company, so I had reverted back to my no nonsense Finnish item until it was time for my wife to renew her contract and thus in turn get a new mobile. This led to me having a brief affair with her old Chinese communications device until in an obvious fit of oriental pique at being dumped, had started occasionally to heat up alarmingly in my pocket before switching off completely.
A huffy, tempestuous and potentially suicidal object is not what I need situated close to my groin, so back I crawled like a penitent sinner to my trusty no nonsense Finnish friend. Sadly, time had not been kind to his face and even though I tried to soldier on I couldn’t for the life of me see what number I was dialling through his tiny grizzled features, never mind garner the other information that I now seem to need like
…what time is it?
…or even what blinking day is it?
I am amazed that I should need a phone to remind me of the time,day and date, but it seems as I get older it is no longer an occasional reminder, but a daily necessity.
Thinking about this now, I could have just bought a watch but, to add salt to the wound, I had been tempted by the winsome charms of the route finding capabilities in the Asian hussy devices during my brief dalliance with them. Unfortunately for me the ever sensible Finnish designers had seemed to deem the inclusion of a Sat Nav as nothing but a wanton act of decadence and frippery in an object designed primarily to enable speech with someone who is not in near proximity to you.
So the die was cast.
I instructed one of my sons to buy me a second hand smart phone as I didn’t want another contract which gives me texts I don’t use and data that is extraneous to my needs.
He arrived home with what I can only describe as a ‘pink’ computer.
“It’s not pink “he said, “its rose gold”.
“It’s not…It’s bloody pink” I said.
“Put it in a case and nobody will ever know” he responded breezily.
“So it is pink then?” I said.
That will be game, set and match yet again to your father I thought smugly as I studied - (what I now considered to be) - my new ‘very light red’ purchase.
It is important as one grows older to log as many small victories as possible with one’s offspring, as the large ones seem to grow more distant and occasional in the extreme.
Fortunately for me I am secure in my masculinity plus it does indeed look black in the case I immediately bought for it.
The case makes it so bulky that it won’t now fit in my pocket, but that’s an entirely different matter.
It seems I can now download games, music, films, and books. I can video and take pictures better than I can on my pocket camera. I can join online communities, check- in to venues so everyone can see what an exciting and varied life I lead and be an exponent of the selfie. I can forget about carrying credit cards and pay bills via an ‘app’. I can view my bank details and create documents and spread sheets. Damn it, I can even talk to an online assistant. I have at my command and fingertips not just a telephone, but the means to be a fully paid up member of the twenty-first century.
The technology is there and it has been designed to be used without the need for instruction.
… But here’s the rub.
It’s not that I am afraid of something new; it’s just that I don’t need it in my day to day life.
‘Progress is man's ability to complicate simplicity’ - Thor Heyerdahl.
I have no idea who Thor Heyerdahl is or was, but he seems to agree with me and that’s important.
...And he is called Thor and that is just way cool.
In fact I probably could find out more about him using my new phone.
…Thor Heyerdahl is an explorer, academic, writer and Archaeologist, famous for crossing the Pacific Ocean by raft in 1947. The rafts name was the Kon -Tiki.
Of course I did know who Thor Heyerdahl was. I had just filed his name under ‘miscellaneous’ in my brain.
I file everything under ‘miscellaneous’, so it is definitely not memory loss due to age but merely an administrative error on my part.
One day my father arrived home in old beige coloured Vauxhall Victor. This was to be the new toy for my brother and myself. - An actual field car! He had acquired this as someone had been unable to pay him for some work he had carried out and they had offered this as payment instead of hard cash. I would have been around eight or nine years old when first I drove it around the field. It had a column change and a bench front seat. I needed pillows both behind and below me to enable an effective driving position.
Despite this slight problem, I thought that driving a clapped out, beige coloured Vauxhall Victor was real cool for a nine year old.
Unfortunately we had a short ‘driving season’ as we were only allowed to drive after hay had been made from the field and before cattle resumed grazing. This also was a problem in that the infrequency of the cars motion led to the brakes seizing on. This was a serious problem in that the car had a duff battery and required a ‘bump start’ by running down the small ramp my brother and I had fashioned to start it. You also had to be sure not to run out of petrol before returning and parking on the ramp.
This wasn’t as easy it seems, as a gallon of petrol didn’t really show on the gauge and we always wanted to maximise our driving time.
Nevertheless we had big problem- brakes wise.
We informed our father of the problem.
To this day I remember him taking off the hubs and throwing the brakes shoes away.
“They won’t stick now “he said rather unnecessarily as he reaffixed the hubs.
As I have said, ‘my father wasn’t big on health and safety’, but rather good at problem solving.
There was also the slight difficulty of acquiring petroleum. This cost money and of which, my brother and I had none. However at that time you received six old pence every time you returned an empty lemonade bottle to the local shop. This was therefore a source of revenue to be exploited.
It is amazing just how many bottles a nine and eleven year old can carry the several few measly miles to what constituted the local shop/filling station/pub if suitably motivated. The return trek was slightly better as we only had the single gallon of ‘go- juice’ to lug home and there was always the prospect of driving a car to look forward to. The gallon was soon sucked through the Vauxhall’s carburettor in a disappointedly short time, so often what followed was some surreptitious removal of petrol from the family car via a piece of garden hose pipe and enthusiastic, if somewhat inept, sucking.
True, leaded 4- star did not taste very nice, but it was worth the discomfort and we improved our technique with practice.
There were therefore some obvious problems with a field car.
One fateful day my father arrived home with what was to be my first motorcycle.
It was a definitive moment.
It was a 197cc Francis Barnett.
A 197cc Francis Barnett is, and was, not a cool bike- Especially the one with the much maligned AMC engine.
This bike naturally had the AMC engine.
My father had bought it off my much older cousin for the incredible sum of eight pounds and brought it home for my brother and me to use instead of the Vauxhall. I think I was now around ten or eleven at the time and for me it was quite a big heavy bike. Petrol now lasted longer, but as the bike was two- stroke it had to be mixed with oil. There was a large forty gallon drum of oil in the shed which my father used for his lorry.
It was oil.
It was ‘free’.
The proprietary two stroke version cost money.
It was a no brainer that the petrol was mixed with diesel engine oil.
Have you ever seen WW2 naval dramas where before/during the battle the captain bellows down the speaker tube running to the engine room, “MAKE SMOKE?” Those commanders would have loved the Franny B/petrol/engine oil for diesels combination. By now we had taken to riding up and down the back road where we lived as the bike really wasn’t suited to field work. Flat out was 50 to 55mph (according to the wildly fluctuating speedo) with a helmetless, insurance- less, prone 11 year old on board. Such spirited riding activity left an impressive dense haze of exhaust emissions hanging languidly above the road which seemed defiantly impervious to dispersal by wind.
But as exciting as this was, something was missing.
I was now so much more mature and had outgrown my easily impressed much younger and adolescent self. I decided I needed more power and I needed the bike to look a lot cooler. Reading motorcycle magazines had engendered high hopes of massive power increases by the simple expedient of fitting a new set of rings. Piggy bank was raided and I impressed by fitting the newly acquired rings myself.
An eagerly awaited test ride revealed a massive non- increase in power.
This was highly disappointing.
I turned to Phase 2 of the plan.
I had a poster on my bedroom wall. It was a ‘still’ from the film ‘Easy Rider’ depicting Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda at the famous ‘Three Bridges’ location at Topock, Arizona. Peter Fonda’s chopped out ‘Hog’ was my favourite. It had a peanut tank emblazoned with the stars and stripes, raked out forks, banana seat, ape hangers, highway pegs and a sissy bar. It was just everything a custom bike should be. And not only that, but with their bedrolls strapped to the bikes, the sun glinting off their ‘shades’ and wind blowing in their long hair, they were the epitome of rebellious freedom.
I hated school and longed for that freedom.
Nay, I yearned, coveted and craved for it.
…I considered my options.
I had absolutely no money left following my ‘engine tuning’ and the lemonade bottle revenue had dried up due to over utilization. So the forks, peanut tank, highway pegs, sissy bar and ape hangers were out of the question.
Wearing sunglasses in the rain/mist was not really an option.
The bedroll would be a step too far… even for me.
The long hair I could work on.
…That left painting the tank with the American flag.
Problem 1. - obtain red, blue and white paint at a knock down price.
Problem 2- Drawing stars. - Not as easy as it looks.
A raid on my older brother’s stash of Humbrol model paint and cutting out stars via white sticky back plastic solved everything. And other than the paint running every time I spilled petrol on the tank while refuelling, it was a triumph.
By that I mean it was still a 197cc Francis Barnett and not a Triumph motorcycle, but in a certain light it definitely looked like a tank with an American flag depicted on it.
I thought it looked pretty good.
It was what my sons would now call totally ‘Craptacular’.
…I sold that bike to my best friend at school.
I got fifteen pounds for it, which wasn’t a great profit considering my ‘improvements’ and emotional commitment to the project. I gave him one pound back for a ‘luck penny’.
In fact, considering the cost of the new rings and paint I didn’t really make anything on it at all.
In the grand tradition of the Franny B, my friend sought to further improve the bike on the cheap. He purloined a very used ex racing TZ Yamaha rear tyre from his cousin and spent an enjoyable extended time period trying to persuade it onto the rim.
Unsurprisingly it did nothing for the handling, but stayed on the bike until many, many years later when the con-rod made a bid for freedom via the crankcase.
Fact was, I think he couldn’t ever face the prospect of trying to get it off the rim again.
That bike not only ignited my interest in riding, but was the introduction to motorcycling for my friend and his two brothers and their friends.
Damn it all, I’ve changed my mind.
The Franny B was a very cool bike indeed.
My dad was right, as for us there could never have been a better or ‘younger time to larne.’
It has been a while since we heard a yarn from John so it is time to have some more 'knowledge' imparted. This tale is called 'Teeth and Choppers'