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12 June 2024

Uneasy rider

I still dream about the joy I felt traversing London on my old motorbike. But the idea of my child owning one terrifies me.

By Nicholas Lezard

Ping! A WhatsApp message from my child A—. They’ve passed motorcycle training and now they’ve bought a bike: a Royal Enfield Interceptor, 650cc. What’s more, it’s brand new. I’ve never owned, or even driven, a brand new vehicle of any kind, bike or car or van. Anyway, the eldest fruit of my loins has a motorbike and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I have only myself to blame. When my children were growing up, I had a Moto Guzzi V50 Mark II that I loved dearly, even if it kept breaking down. Well, not so much breaking down as deciding not to work for a bit. To this day, I can still feel the faint thud, accompanied by a click, as the starter failed to engage. It was a V reg, with the V at the end of the plate rather than at the beginning, meaning it was built or registered some time between August 1979 and July 1980; so about ten years old by the time I got it. But when it was running, it was a beauty: nippy in urban traffic, but robust enough to go from London to York and back without falling apart.

I stopped riding the bike when I nearly got my leg sliced off at the knee by – improbably – a tree surgeon’s trailer while stuck in traffic by the Shepherds Bush roundabout. I thought: if I can have a life-changing injury while travelling at zero mph then maybe it really isn’t safe enough any more. (Up until then, the only accident I’d had on it was when I tried to drive off with the D-lock still in the front wheel. I was sober.) And I now I had children, which kind of changed everything.

A— had threatened to get a bike from an early age; I dismissed this as a straightforward desire to wind me up, perhaps with a little dash of Being Impressed by Daddy. So I was a little bit flattered, but mostly worried: all the anxieties that I’d begun to experience about bike riding had now been shifted to anxieties about what would happen to A—. “Wait till you’re older,” I said.

And for years, it was never mentioned. I assumed that A— had forgotten all about it, but A— is tenacious of will and spirit and when I was told they were having bike lessons round the corner from their flat in Dalston I got worried all over again. Then I heard the insurance just to park the damn thing would be punitively high and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I heard that the Royal Enfield doesn’t cost as much to insure and my hair turned white all over again.

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The thing is, I can’t be a hypocrite. This has been my main principle as a parent, and on the whole it means my children and I still get on rather well. In other words, I can’t tell them off for doing something stupid if I’ve done the same thing before and enjoyed it. One of them once called me at 2am in the middle of a whitey caused by some bad MDMA at university because they knew that if they called their mother all they’d get was a lecture, and no practical advice based on personal experience. (As it is, I was very helpful indeed.) And it has to be said that riding a motorbike is more fun than any recreational drug ever made. In fact, I would go so far as to say that when I went on the bike to see friends for dinner or something, I didn’t even mind keeping my drinking to an absolute minimum; and there is a particularly keen joy in riding back with a tiddly wife on the pillion seat, with her whooping with joy at the view of London from the Westway.

Anyway, A— is getting a bike and that’s that. A— is now the same age I was when I had my Guzzi and earns about twice as much as me, so I really can’t call the shots any more. I also approve the choice of bike: of a venerable design, not like something that looks like it’s from a sci-fi film, and it goes vroom rather than whizz. (This is one of the reasons I chose a Guzzi: their engine notes are extremely distinctive, and even with the later, jazzier models you can identify them by sound alone.) Royal Enfield is one of the oldest continuous manufacturers of bikes in the world – possibly the oldest – and with the kind of mechanics that mean that you can fix the bike on the roadside most times, once you’ve gone on even a basic course. I urged A— to take one of these. “It might sound silly,” I said, “but it really helps you bond with the bike.”

And this is probably why I still dream about the bike: although I always know, during the dream, that I’m dreaming, because the bike is working. “There’s something else,” I said. “You’d better let me have a go on it” – and A— has agreed that I can. No one else on Earth will be allowed to drive the thing. This is a very cunning concession on A—’s part. It means that I am now rather less worried about their driving it and more just excited about driving it myself. I feel the years falling away from me, and as long as I stay away from the Shepherds Bush roundabout I should be OK.

[See also: Rediscovering the bright lights]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency