I've been writing a column for the trailblazing French magazine Cafe Racer for nearly ten years. I've started sharing them on the Sideburn blog. Here's another...
Photo: J-F Muguet
Unless it’s a perishable, when I buy something I plan to keep it forever. I’m not sure what childhood incident has instilled this mindset in me, but no matter how many times I hit my head against a brick wall I can’t shake it. I’ve owned the same car for 19 years (and it runs, it’s not rotting in the undergrowth). The Lambretta that shares the lock-up with the car has been with me since Gorbachev was in power. I’ve raced the same Wood Rotax dirt track bike for 12 years and take it to the track in a van I’ve owned since 2011. When I’m competing on that bike I’m up against adults who are younger than T-shirts I bought brand new and still wear! I’ve been with the same woman since Berlin was still split by a wall and guarded by Commies with Kalashnikovs. I’m not making any of this up. For reference, I was born in ’71, it’s not like I’m 80 years old or anything.
But there is a difference between planning to keep something forever and actually keeping it forever. I’ve learned there are only a very few things that I really wouldn’t part with: the aforementioned car, scooter, race bike and, yes, wife are at the top of a very short list. Everything else, I’ve learned, is just stuff and I’ve got so much stuff cluttering my life that sometimes I want to take a swinging kick at it. I keep it just so I don’t have to waste money replacing it. Instead, I just waste time trying to find it when I think I need it. That mentality is certainly inherited from my father, a man born into World War II, who grew up with rationing and post-war austerity.
The Suzuki GSX-R1100 special I built a few years ago was something I thought was on the short list, but then I sold it without much thought when I was made a half-decent cash offer. You might remember the bike. I nicknamed the bike The Black Arrow, and poured £1000s into it. I built it from a bare frame over years, buying or having each piece made especially for it along the way. It taught me a lot about custom-built performance motorcycles. It was truly unique and people liked it. I rode it on the road, and on the Montlhery banking during a Café Racer Festival one year. I drag raced it at Glemseck too. Then it was gone. And I wasn’t unhappy, which surprised me. I had slightly more room to move about in my garage. I still have plenty of bikes, perhaps too many, so I wasn’t too surprised that not one day has passed when I wished I had it back for one more ride. For someone who feels a cast iron bond with an old Converse shoebox full of postcards and stickers, when I decided it was time this bike, that had obsessed me for a while, could move on, it was gone and pretty much forgotten.
Finally, we’re getting to the real thrust of this column. Even though I wasn’t sad to see it go I didn’t know I would have to deal with emotions I’d never encountered before.
The new owner of the Suzuki changed a load of parts, replacing the Showa front forks with Öhlins and fitting new wheels, painting the tank, that I had intentionally left with patina and welding marks. He fitted lots of (I thought) horrible billet engine cover parts too. I could live with all this. It was no longer my bike, after all, and I hadn’t sold it because I was in financial difficulties, I was done with it. Neither was it a historically important machine that needed preserving. The issue came when the new owner started referring to the Suzuki as the Black Arrow and called himself a name with Black Arrow included on social media. It caused feelings to churn within me. That was my name for the bike, not yours, I thought, petulantly. My muddled thinking decided other people could refer to it as The Black Arrow, but only when I owned it. Now it’s yours, and you’ve changed it, you should think of your own name.
I hadn’t had to deal with stuff like this before. It all felt unfamiliar and unusually personal. Remember I told you I’d been with the same women since the days of the Iron Curtain? Well, that means I’ve never had to see, or even imagine, her in the arms of another. When I tell new friends’ anecdotes I never have to pause before I start and wonder, ‘Was it her I went to Barcelona with, or the one before?’ I don’t have to second guess or pause before I ask a question about our shared history. Everything major I’ve ever done has been done together, or at least in our time together. I never do the sitcom faux pas of breathing the wrong name in the final throes of passion, and no one has a pet name for her but me. I know men who go from one three or four year relationship to the next with barely a pause for breath in the middle. They’re with partners long enough to do lots together, to have properly meaningful shared experiences, then it’s over and they move on. How do they keep track and how often do they think of ex-lovers: What does she sees in him? What are they doing right now?
I’ve never had to deal with these questions in human relationships, but the Suzuki, the silly Suzuki that I really do not miss, made me have these dumb thoughts. Before I started writing this I looked the old bike up on instagram. The new owner had it parked in his house. At Christmas he decorated it with fairy lights. What? And started referring to the Suzuki as a she, when it was only ever an it. This might be difficult for the French to understand, and I might be on shaky ground, but inanimate objects are not gendered. I'm not 100% sure, but social media makes it look like he lives alone, with a cat, perhaps that explains everything…