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.

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