Friday, June 22, 2018

Royal Enfields, Rockers, Leather Boys and the novelist

Royal Enfield Continental GT cafe racers lined up at the Ace Cafe London
when the then new model was introduced to the press in September, 2013.
If Royal Enfield motorcycles didn't create the phenomena of the Ace Cafe, Rockers and leather boys in 1960s Britain, they certainly played a role in how those times are remembered.

Royal Enfield was there, and on the front page, too (Suicide Club!).

Royal Enfield, today based in India, continues to celebrate that Britain of the '60s with its Continental GT cafe racer and its coming 650cc parallel-twin models.

The appearance and even the cylinder layout of the new Royal Enfield models will reflect the famous British motorcycles that propelled leather-clad youth to real (and fictional) glory in that now long-ago time.

I'm old enough to remember 1964. Acclaimed novelist Rachel Kushner — born in 1968 — is not, but she feels herself so a part of those days that she has written an essay entitled "Finding Yourself in Film" in the June 4, 2018 New Yorker.

It's the 1964 movie "The Leather Boys" that has gotten under her skin.

For Kushner (no relation to Jared Kushner), the movie suggests a "cool" image of her once beatnik parents, living in London in 1965. Her father rode a modified Vincent Black Shadow.

"This life my parents lived took place before I was born. I can't see it, but I can watch 'The Leather Boys" with them," she writes.

Opening scene from 1964 movie "The Leather Boys."
Kushner is no idle dreamer. She is a motorcyclist. Her website shows a photo of her with her vintage Ducati. She has had her crash, too, thrown from a Ninja at 130 mph on Highway 1 in Baja, according to a New Yorker profile of her by Dana Goodyear.

"I mention this history," Goodyear writes in the profile, "because it is Kushner's nightmare to be thought of as a dilettante — someone who rode on the back..."

So Kushner's love for "The Leather Boys" is genuine, and informed. And, indeed, her essay earned the applause of at least one person with a claim to know.

"I was a young leather boy who frequented the Ace and Busy Bee cafes back in the day and my fellow Rockers and I took part in some of the movie scenes," wrote Mike Ryan, now a Californian, in a letter-to-the-editor in the June 25, 2018 New Yorker.

You can watch "The Leather Boys" on YouTube and see if it matches your memories or perhaps your hopes for the lifestyle you will lead when you ride your Royal Enfield motorcycle.

Personally? For some reason I just can't make myself watch the film through. The actors are so young and vulnerable. Never mind that motorcycling is dangerous: don't these young people realize that all those cigarettes are bad for them?

Unlike Kushner, I am an admitted dilettante, satisfied to ride my Royal Enfield at a very uncool 42 mph. The bat-out-of-hell Rockers in the movie exhibit more skill than I'll ever possess.

But wait just a darn minute. The New Yorker seems to be unsure what to make of Kushner's essay. In the print magazine her article is categorized as about — what? —  "Parenting."

What is with that?

The reason becomes obvious at the end of Kushner's essay, where her father points out that his Vincent Black Shadow had one very important modification indeed.

Life, even in 1964, wasn't all about the Ton, black leather, sex and cigarettes. Check out the essay and see what I mean.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Time travel? It's possible, on a Royal Enfield

Riding a classic Royal Enfield carries me back to the way things were.
I've often mentioned that I consider my Royal Enfield motorcycle a sort of time machine that carries me back in time as it carries me forward in space.

Riding my Royal Enfield, I can experience something of life in the 1940s, when it was designed, and its like roamed the planet.

The other day, hunting around the house for a pocket book to take on an airplane flight, I grabbed H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" from the books one of my now grown daughters left behind.

The classic tale of a man who travels into the future has been published and republished so often that there is dispute about which is the definitive version. However, it seems to have been first published in 1895.

Wells himself wrote a "Forward" to a version published in 1931, in which he noted:

"'The Time Machine' has lasted as long as the diamond-framed safety bicycle, which came in at about the date of its first publication."

Why the mention of the safety bicycle? Because H.G. Wells was fascinated by the then new safety bicycle and its possibilities. In "The Time Machine" the fictional Time Traveler mounts a machine equipped with a "saddle," like a bicycle.

Bicycles appear in other H.G. Wells fiction. There's even a book about the author's interest in two-wheelers, "War of the Wheels," by Jeremy Withers.

At about the time Wells began imagining traveling in time, England was enchanted by the new found mobility offered by the safety bicycle.

These combined pneumatic tires, chain drive, usable brakes and a riding position near enough the ground to put your feet down.

It was only a short step to add a motor, creating the motorcycle.

It must have seemed to a formerly pedestrian society that the speed of the two-wheeler saved so much time that it virtually was a time machine. If such a device could move you through three dimensions of space, why not through the fourth dimension of time?

Wells thought a traveler so enabled would head towards the future to discover how human life in 1895 would evolve.

In the book things turn out very badly indeed, and the time traveler is lucky just to escape back into his own day.

I suspect a real time traveler would prefer to visit the past. It's safer.

Certainly not all was well with the world in 1955, my childhood days I prefer to wonder about, but what happened then is at least settled history.

My Royal Enfield and I will get to the present time when we get there — and not before.

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