MYTH, MOTORBIKES AND MY OLD MAN
Ah, the ISLE OF MAN! If you have ever lived there, then you can recite this next bit by heart. Not to be confused with the Isle of Wight; significantly larger than Jersey, but with roughly the same amount of people on it. And a good deal more rain, on account of being up North, fella. Just be sure to say hello to the Fairies. Seriously, do let them know you've arrived. It is considered rude not to. Being 'away' with them has a completely different meaning, in Manx. And there’s always a boat in the morning, should the Island fail to float yours.
Nestled in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man nurtures an astonishing rugged landscape. Manx and Irish mythology both attribute its existence to an epic spat, between Manannan Mac Lir and Finn McCool. Apparently, Finn lost his cool, and a small piece of Ireland was struck with such force that it landed in the Irish Sea and became Ellan Vannin. Equally, the Island looks similar to parts of Cumbria, Wales and Scotland. On film, it is happy to stand-in for Ireland or Cornwall. Be warned though: its Celtic heart will capture your own and steal your soul for good measure.
Having once dwelt on the rock for over a decade, I can attest to living among folk who were mostly kind and warm-hearted, if a little too fond of schadenfreude! I also unearthed a quiet, self-conscious creativity and inherent musicality, content to hide its light from the wider world and not shout about it.
To an extent, Manx life is cosseted and the grass really is greener – apart from the illicit kind. The Island has always discouraged dynamic progress. Male homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1992. The late comedian Jeremy Hardy did a gig at Bushy's around that time. He gently poked fun with a poem, about entering Douglas the back way.
The Isle of Man has long been the go-to Valhalla for many a shrewd and wealthy Northerner. It is also home for those whose good fortune was simply to inherit one. The Island is half-run on boozy charity fundraisers and propped-up vanity projects. Do not underestimate its sleepy and quaint veneer, either. A thousand agile minds peddle anonymity and offshore fiscal sophistication on Athol Street.
I remember an endearing innocence back in the early 1990s. Douglas was a world away from the artisan eateries and coffee shops of today. One café on Strand Street served frothy coffee and would close for an hour at lunch time. Conversely, at least four pubs in our village would offer a lock-in on Saturday night, which usually concluded around dawn. The local copper once politely knocked on the door to let the landlord know his curtain needed adjusting, to prevent tell-tale light from escaping out the window and onto the pitch black street.
Those walks home at day-break stay with me. They would usually begin as a daunting, drunken endeavour in group formation. Stragglers would be rounded up and chided to their front door, like wayward sheep. Conversation with a fellow traveler would be candid and intimate, punctuated by the gulping, gasping effort required for Old Laxey Hill. Neither would recall what was discussed, when we reconvened later for a swift hair of the dog. Whilst opening hours may have been lax after dark, most pubs strictly adhered to them during daylight. You had about an hour to nurse a hangover before consuming the Sunday roast.
The final part of the journey home would be solitary, the precarious coastal shortcut eased by creeping daylight, sobering exertion and crisp fresh air. The day would be properly greeted and embraced. I was never blasé or indifferent to my unique vantage point over such exceptional natural beauty.
Gradually, it absorbs you. You find yourself shunning some smart, stuffy office job, for a year in a draughty barn halfway up a mountain - by Manx standards. No running water and just a jenny for power. At 23, I could repair and start a broken generator in the inky black nothing of that hour before dawn, with the storm blowing a hoolie about my head.
The novelty of transporting self and stuff, Sherpa style, uphill for miles on rough terrain, soon wore thin. An old London black cab was duly modified, with the back roof cut off to resemble a pick-up. I became adept at manhandling its ungainly heft up that tight dirt track, backsliding around the final bend with pedal to the metal. Sometimes we would experience a mechanical. To this day, I cannot explain how I always managed to fix it by banging some engine part hard with my trusty hammer.
I first set foot on the Island in 1977 as an impressionable eight year old. My father was fulfilling a boyhood dream at the age of 32: to enter a motorbike at the Isle of Man TT.
Having worked from nothing to establish a small property development company, Dad was briefly able to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Completely self-made, he never once received a penny of parental help. His best friend was given a flat in London as a wedding present. We would move from a respectable, detached modern bungalow in Wrestlingworth, to an enormous dilapidated Old Rectory in Cockayne Hatley. I had riding lessons. My brother had a monkey bike.
Dad indulged in a rapid succession of tasty motors: A silver Morgan, a vivid green Triumph Stag, one dinky Alfasud Sprint, and two E-types. One coupe like an exquisite silver bullet; then another, Worthington – we named all our cars – a metallic powder blue.
The sensory combination of leather and petrol, and the immediate raw power beneath that curvaceous bonnet, was intoxicating. My father taught me to listen to the engine and feel the car. He drove intuitively, smoothly at speed. His conspiratorial, humorous chatter would cut through The Who and that throaty Jaguar roar. Even back then, it was the sort of car that turned heads. If you parked up in the remote tundra, people would soon appear and gravitate towards it. The E-type is aesthetically perfect. Even Ferrari said so!
My brother and I decided a while back to stop torturing ourselves, by pondering what became of Dad’s expensive cast-off toys. For there, madness lies. We still fantasise about a pristine white garage at the end of a long driveway, and a tearful reunion with them all.
My mother also enjoyed driving and was good at it. She was unashamedly infatuated with Steve McQueen. Her half-brother, Billy Izzard, was an accomplished RAF pilot. The family story was always that he flew reserve Red Arrow. The best of the best. We would love to know if this is true. Mum's Aunt rode her Triumph T3 to the TT before and after the war; and met Guthrie. A real livewire, she died on Mum's birthday aged 101. I suspect she would have been livid at the insensitive timing of her own demise.
Dad’s real passion was motorbikes. His father had worked for Vincent in Stevenage after the war. Dad honed his craft on the road with some of the original ton-up boys. So many of them died young. He never raced competitively though. His nomadic tendencies preferred the freedom of the open road and touring instead. Dad’s BSA apparently had pride of place in our living room when I was born. I have a faded photo with my father sat astride it, holding me on the tank. Carpet was deemed less of a priority, much to the chagrin of my maternal grandma.
By the 1970s, Dad was in a position to buy whatever bike took his fancy. He would often get a call from George Brown Motorcycles, with an offer to run-in the latest exotic acquisition and 'buy it if you like it'.
And so we found ourselves on the Island in 1977, with two beautiful Ducati Desmos and one friend, Merrick, with some racing experience to ride them. Dad spent most of his time in the Paddock and we hardly saw him. My love for the noisy, juddering motorbikes and whiff of burnt Castrol was instantaneous and lifelong, though. As you age, the combination elicits a deeply primal emotional response. Back then, it was simply thrilling. I could not understand why the boy next to me ran crying for his mum, as the first bike thundered by.
It was exciting to have a rider to follow and we would sit in the Grandstand and count the laps. Of course, our school friends were unimpressed when they discovered our dad was not Mike the Bike or Barry Sheene; and he had not ridden the Duke to victory, but merely sponsored it.
I have an unreliable memory that Merrick crashed out after running eighth for a couple of laps. Naturally, the story has been embellished over time. But I'm sure his race did end at Ballacraine and the bike was carried aloft by willing punters through the pub.
My brother and I were kept out of the way and spent much of the time playing near our trailer tent at Sulby Claddagh. The highlight for me had been pony-trekking with Mum. We were joined by some men who were also camping at the Claddagh. They materialised one morning with military precision; their Army green tents in a perfect circle at the farthest end of the site. I found them fascinating. Physically slight and unremarkable, with forgettable features hidden by copious facial hair, they sprinted around the top of the Glen at 06:00 hours each morning, wearing gym-kit, full Bergen and heavy boots. The exertion appeared not to trouble them one iota. They seemed to relax once we were all on horseback and were hilarious company. I still remember the one guy riding ahead to the top of the hill, stopping and declaring loudly ‘I see no Indians!’ I often wonder what happened to them.
My Dad’s highlight was probably that early morning lap with Merrick to give the bikes a run. The roads were open but quiet. The Ducati had a unique and guttural sound. Stationary, the noise was akin to shaking a tin bucket full of nuts and bolts. In stereo. Dad rode behind Merrick and both bikes were singing full chat along Sulby Straight. A van driver had stopped up ahead to talk to his friend in a tractor on the other side of the road. Merrick does not let off as he approaches. He screams through the narrow gap and Dad follows, with a swift intake of breath, shoulders hunched tightly and eyes firmly shut. An outburst of expletives is lost in the wind. That moment of pure exhilaration remains palpable and infectious, despite only ever being remembered second-hand.
Dad returned to watch the TT in 1978 as a spectator. I vividly recall his account of Hailwood's legendary comeback after an eleven year hiatus, on a Ducati. Dad always rated Mike Hailwood. There was much to admire: The sheer natural-born talent and oneness with machinery required to nurse an ailing bike home. The extrovert party animal contradicted by the shy, kind family man and accomplished musician. By all accounts, Hailwood was modest, charismatic and brave. He was awarded the George Medal during a brief fling with Formula One, for rescuing Clay Regazzoni at Kyalami in 1973. The BRM was engulfed in flames; the driver unconscious and trapped. Mike's persistent attempts to extract him had been nothing short of heroic.
I remember when Hailwood was killed in 1981. He was 40 years old. The cruel irony of circumstance was lost on no one. After years spent taking calculated, death-defying risks in motor sport, his life had been taken during a mundane trip to the local takeaway, with his two children in the back of the Rover. Tragically, his daughter Michelle died with him.
The magnetic pull of the Isle of Man TT is both inevitable and subtle. There are certain triggers that let you know it has got under your skin. You may step out of your City office one day and be transported there, by the sudden acceleration of a motorbike in the street, intermingled with the brief aroma of cooked onions and cigarette smoke, or the distant scream of seagulls over the Thames.
Often, it is standing behind a Manx dry stone wall in a tranquil field, as the muffled sound of sheep and occasional birdsong becomes the whine of an approaching motorbike at speed. For others, the enthusiastic annual announcement from Roy Moore over the radio, enlightening us that the first rider is ‘sweeping through Stella Maris…’ For some, it is simply waking to the sound of rain on canvas. Or, perhaps the sight of Manannan’s cloak draped over Snaefell, and the knowledge that no racing will happen today.
I have three recollections that come to the fore. The first, in 1987, was following the mechanic on a Rotary Norton as he rode from the Paddock down Summerhill. Lid off, fag on. We got to sit behind it at the junction whilst waiting for traffic. The windows were wound down and our smiles stretched from ear to ear. It sounded incredible just ticking over. But the kicker was hearing it pull away. Dad's eyes shone with emotion. The Norton had returned after some years in the wilderness. And so had he.
The second TT moment occurred in the early 2000s. Pete and I were newlywed and arguing over the sub-standard hotel we had just paid through the nose for. A common TT theme! As we stood on the steps bickering, the Red Arrows performed a perfectly executed love-heart in the sky over Douglas Bay behind us.
The third is the horrific crash on Senior Race Day 2015, near Cronk-y-Voddy. Thankfully the rider, Jamie Hamilton - from Ballyclare - survived. Cameron Donald had ridden through the fireball and pulled up in the field where we sat. He was visibly shaken. It was a typically bittersweet TT moment. You have to balance the thrill of meeting a great rider and seeing the most gorgeous bike at close quarters, whilst knowing that a privateer with a day job, mortgage and family has just suffered life-changing injuries.
Eventually, the roads were cleared and bike and rider headed back to the Pits. But I’ll always remember the steely glint in Cameron’s eyes as the visor went down and he pulled away. Of course the race was restarted. And yes, that Norton really does sound as breathtaking as it looks!
The Isle of Man TT is the oldest motor sport event in the world. It is the most beautiful and the most deadly road race. The entire TT fortnight can often be an endurance test for riders and spectators alike. The Islanders greet this two-wheeled invasion with a mixture of bemused tolerance, exasperation and immense pride. Senior Race Day is a Manx national holiday. The TT course is the beating heart of its interior, signposted with names that evoke a hundred years of history: Guthrie's, Handley's, Drinkwater's, Graham's, Hailwood's; Joey's.
For two weeks in June, the motorbike is king. The mountain road is made one-way to public traffic. Where else can you witness a car driver attempting to park up and watch the racing, only to be greeted by an unsympathetic policeman and told 'Go away! This area is for bikes only. And no, you can't park there. The riders are flying past here flat out...'?
Whilst the core aspiration - to arrive at the chequered flag first and in one piece - remains the same, much has changed since that inaugural race in 1907. Back then, the last man across the mountain was obliged to dismount his machine and shut the gate, to prevent sheep from escaping. Now, thanks to the rapid evolution of the motorbike, things move a little less sedately. Riders lap the 37.73 mile TT course at a flabbergasting average speed of 135mph. It has to be seen to be believed.
Road racing has an appalling rate of attrition. Some years, the pain is almost too much to bear. We wonder how the Dunlop family cope with such overwhelming loss. But ask any rider and each will tell you the same thing. They are acutely aware of the risks. It is a unique bond between human and machine. To ride at the absolute limit of what is possible, ever closer to the edge and inches from certain death, is perversely addictive and life-affirming.
For Pete and me, the Isle of Man and the TT are forever entwined. Both brought us together. And for this come-over Manxie, the Island will always be home.
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MUM & DAD