The Isle of Man
Blue for the sea
Green for the hills
Gold for the gorse
Purple for the heather
White for the cottages
MYTH, MOTORBIKES AND MY OLD MAN
Updated: June 2023
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, yessir.
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 astonishingly beautiful 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 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! The Island harbours 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. For some, this is part of its charm. 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.
Formed in the early ninth century, Tynwald claims to be the oldest continuous parliament on earth. The Nordic Land of Fire and Ice follows hot on its heels with Althing. Manx residents can still rock up at Tynwald Hill on Tynwald Day and have their say. The Island is a Crown Dependency with its own national anthem, postage stamps, currency and Triskelion flag. It produces meat, dairy, kippers and, crucially, its own beer. Just don't mention the "whiskey"...
Manx Gaelic had died a death by 1974, but has gradually been revived. The most frequently used word at the heart of island life is Skeet, as in 'What's the skeet, fella?' If you hail from south of Watford, to 'lewk at a kewk bewk' simply means to consult a culinary recipe.
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 offshore fiscal sophistication on Athol Street.
I remember an endearing innocence back in the late 1980s. 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. Tell-tale light was escaping out the window and onto the pitch black street below.
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, 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 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 a broken right hand and the storm blowing a hoolie about my head.
Whilst a mountain bike proved useful for the daily commute, luggage space was limited. 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 into a pickup. I became adept at manhandling its ungainly heft up that tight dirt track, backsliding around the final bend with pedal to the metal.
I first set foot on the Island in 1977, as an impressionable eight year old. Dad was fulfilling a boyhood dream at the age of 32: to enter a motorbike at the Isle of Man TT.
Dad was part of that lucky generation immortalised on vinyl by The Who. Grey post-war austerity replaced by technicoloured optimism. It must have felt like the future was yours to make. Dad grew up with some of the most enduring, innovative music; and the best British cars and motorbikes. Back when roads were quiet and congestion was just a medical term.
In the early 1960s, Dad's first and only factory job involved booking entertainment for the company bash. He’d recently seen a new band play and arranged to book them. Dad and the manager were both in their late teens. The band had been asked to do a slot on some hip new TV show. Their manager didn’t expect it would come to anything. They needed the cash and agreed to do the gig, just in case.
Dad didn’t think they would amount to much either. The band’s performance at the factory knees-up was, by all accounts, underwhelming. Probably just as well he never became a manager - unlike poor Andrew Loog Oldham, who stuck it out with The Rolling Stones for a while. Bet they hardly made a penny! Both men were completely self-made. Dad always walked the tightrope of life without an enormous safety net mere inches below.
Having worked from nothing to establish a small property development company with his friend, Bill, Dad was briefly able to enjoy the fruits of his labour. We moved 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. Later, there would be one amazing pony; and we would spend weekends watching my brother race motocrossers.
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. Dad 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. It was always 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.
We 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.
For the sake of balance, Dad was also the proud owner of Duane - an absurd imported silver Buick, left-hand drive with plush red velvet interior, so wide it caused tailbacks on narrow country lanes.
Perhaps the most resonant jam jar is White Lightening, the faithful old banger with the broken driver's seat. A rusty diesel Peugeot estate, which Dad drove as if it were a rare and precious Ferrari for most of the materialistic 1980s. All thanks to some shabby outfit called Haringey Council, who failed to pay for work carried out by Dad and Bill on countless humble abodes. Settlement of that enormous invoice remains outstanding, some forty years later. What a shower! Still, we enjoyed reading all about them in Private Eye's Rotten Boroughs (Shurely shome mishtake? - Ed).
Mum always said that Dad only married her because she laughed at all his jokes and had her own car - a smoky blue Mini, called Smoky. Their first car was a pale blue 1959 Fairthorpe. They had tremendous fun together in the happy little car with the sad face.
Dad died suddenly in the Isle of Man on 3rd October 2020, age 76. Which was a bloody great shock to most of us. The lying bastard had been telling everyone he was only 60! The following day, I found a photo online of the exact same Fairthorpe, at a motor show in 2016. It looked cherished and lived in. I think he would be chuffed to know it's still going strong.
Mum also enjoyed driving and was good at it. She briefly rode a Fizzy and was unashamedly infatuated with Steve McQueen. Her half-brother was an accomplished pilot, based at RAF Scampton many moons ago. The family story was always that he flew reserve Red Arrow. The best of the best. We would love to know more. 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 age 101 and 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. Carpet was deemed less of a priority, much to the chagrin of Grandma Alice.
Throughout 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'.
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, they elicit a deeply emotional response. Now I understand why grown men cry at parade laps. Each bike has its own sound and the soul of the engineer who built it. I was amused when the boy next to me ran sobbing 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. By the late 1970s, motorbikes and road racing were rarely deemed newsworthy by the mainstream media. Sheene hated the place and had successfully campaigned for the TT to be removed from the World Championship in 1976.
We 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 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 from Northern Ireland one morning with military precision, their Army green tents in a perfect circle at the farthest end of the site. Physically slight and unremarkable with forgettable bearded faces, 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 relaxed once we were all on horseback and were hilarious company: One guy riding ahead to the top of the hill, stopping and declaring loudly ‘I see no Injuns!’ I often wonder what happened to them.
Dad's highlight was probably that early morning lap to give the bikes a run. The roads were open but quiet. The Ducati had a distinctive 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 has 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.
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.
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. Certain triggers 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 most, it is fresh off the ferry: first practice, first TT; stood at the foot of Bray Hill as the first bike arrives flat out.
But for some, it is simply waking to the sound of rain on canvas. Perhaps the sight of Manannan’s cloak draped over Snaefell and the sure and certain knowledge that no racing will happen today. Visibility must be clear enough for a helicopter to land.
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 to the Prom. Lid off, fag on. Oh, happy days! We got to sit behind it at the junction whilst waiting for traffic. 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 we.
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 at Drinkwater's, where we sat. Despite being visibly shaken, he still took the time to chat with an over-excited Mr C. Top bloke!
It was a typical bittersweet TT moment. You have to balance the thrill of meeting a great rider and seeing the most gorgeous bike at close quarters, while 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 Cam’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 Tourist Trophy is the oldest motor sport event - imagine Jeremy Clarkson here (no, you don't have to) - in the world. Technically a time trial, it is the most beautiful and the most deadly road race.
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 attempt to park up and watch the racing, only to be greeted by an unsympathetic copper 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.'?
Islanders greet this two-wheeled invasion with a mixture of bemused tolerance, exasperation and immense pride. Expect precious little sympathy, should you be foolish enough to buy a house on the Isle of Man TT mountain course and then complain about it. Senior Race Day is a Manx national holiday. The TT course is the beating heart of its interior, signposted with names which evoke one hundred years of history: Guthrie's, Ago's, Handley's, Drinkwater's, Graham's, Hailwood's; Joey's.
The core aspiration - to pass the chequered flag fastest and in one piece - remains the same, but much has changed since that inaugural race in 1907. Back then, it was sensible to carry a spanner shoved down your boot, should the old girl require tinkering halfway round. When the Mountain Course was introduced in 1911, the last man through 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. A lap of the 37.73 mile TT course has to be seen to be believed. TT racer, stunt rider and all round fast lady Jenny Tinmouth describes the experience as 'balancing on the balls of your feet, dancing with the bike for six long laps.' John McGuinness MBE is not quite so flowery and rather more succinct: 'It's fucking mad!'
The unofficial top speed record is currently held by Bruce Anstey MNZM, on his Suzuki GSX-R1000 during a practice session in 2006. The Flying Kiwi hit 206mph at the end of Sulby Straight, near Kella Crossroads. Morecambe Missile John McGuinness MBE was the first to officially break the 130mph barrier in 2007, during the Senior TT. Peter Hickman set the outright lap record in 2023, with a mind-boggling average speed of 136.358mph - on a 'stocker! Not a shocker, as Hicky's record of fastest newcomer at over 129mph was set in 2014 and held for eight years.
Other members of road racing's elite 130 Club include local legend Conor Cummins. As well as serving up the best coffee in the Isle of Man, the Manxman managed a stonking 134.183mph during the Ulster GP in 2017. This was trumped by serial speeder Bruce Anstey MNZM with 134.396 in the same race. Guy Martin was the first to officially clock 130 at the Ulster back in 2006.
The TT schedule has evolved to keep up with the bikes. From 50cc machines to the futuristic, electronic and eerily silent TT Zero, which ran from 2010 until 2019. And from Ultra-Lightweight and Lightweight to Supertwin, thanks in no small part to the genius of Ryan Farquhar BEM - the best rider to never win a TT.
The current race format now comprises of five classes: Supersport, Supertwin, Superstock and Superbike; culminating in the blue riband event: the Senior TT.
And Sidecars. Spare a thought for the three-wheelers, affectionately known as the Chairs. Far from being relaxed and reclined, the Birchall Brothers recently smashed their own lap record with an exhilarating 120.645mph. The outfits are often piloted and co-piloted by close family. Last to race on the day, they invariably bear the brunt of any delays and cancellations.
Sidecars have raced the Isle of Man TT since 1923, and share their centenary with the Le Mans 24 Hour Endurance. Manxman Dave Molyneux is the most successful Sidecar racer of all time, with 17 spectacular TT wins.
The entire TT fortnight can be an endurance test for riders and spectators alike. It is full-throttle and over before you can say 'pint of Okell's and a portion of Manx Queenies, please!'. Expect live bands playing every night; raging hangovers, insect bites, sunburn, trench foot and sleep deprivation, with early starts most mornings to beat the closing roads. A disrupted schedule can shorten or cancel races altogether, usually due to the meteorological moods of Mann. Four seasons in one day, with sun in Douglas and rain in Ramsey, while mist lingers stubbornly over the mountain.
The TT will also give you four emotions in one day. From happiness to euphoria to warm, fuzzy nostalgia. Likeminded friends can be made, lost and found over the years. Epic races are remembered - Hizzy v Foggy - and those momentous, magical TTs, with broken lap records and melting tarmac, when the sun shone bright for a whole week.
Then there is the lump in your throat, as you watch the Marshal's hand touch the shoulder of the first rider in No Man's Land, about to launch from the start line and down Glencrutchery Road like a rocket towards Bray Hill. The profound sadness, as magnums of champagne on the podium remain unopened to respect a fallen competitor. The creeping melancholia, as Senior Race Day ends and Radio TT switches off for another year.
Road racing has an appalling rate of attrition. Since 1911, the Mountain Course has claimed 156 competitors during the TT fortnight. This does not include fatalities from the Manx Grand Prix and other events, such as the North West 200 in Northern Ireland. 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 wherever this come-over Manxie lives, that little rock in the Irish Sea will always feel like home.
Whichever Way You Throw Us, We Stand
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MUM & DAD