If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Friday 18 February 2011

Blast From The Past

I was reading an old edition of Bike magazine the other day - from August 1985, to be precise. I had kept it because it contained a test of a favourite bike of mine, the Yamaha XT350 trail bike (I have owned two). The test ended with words which somehow stuck in my mind 26 years ago when I first read them:
It's probably one of the most versatile bikes yet made. It's also practical, sensible, economical and if you can't have fun on it then you must be dead.
Just for a flavour of the times, the issue also contained test of the Russian-built Ural 650 (complete with pictures of Roland Brown in a trenchcoat and a fur hat with pretend machine-gun), and the new hotshot race-replicas, the Suzuki RG500 Gamma and the Honda NS400R. There are also adverts for Allspeed exhausts, Koni Dial-A-Ride shocks and Tommaselli controls. Remember them?

But the article that interested me most was an interview with the Rt Hon Henry Bellingham, MP. At the time, Bellingham had been an MP for just two years and was yet to make his mark. But he had an interest in setting up an all-party group of MPs to represent motorcycling interests, and this is what interested the good hippies of Bike. Bellingham (Eton and The Guards, Magdalene, Inner Temple) was MP for North West Norfolk. He lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1997, but regained the seat in 2002, retained it in 2005, and again with an increased majority in 2010. The peak of his career seems to have been Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry, back in 2002.

I can't find a contemporary image of Bellingham from 1985, but the above recent pic is remarkable, in that the guy has hardly changed at all in 26 years. Colour the hair black, and you have the pic from Bike. The tilt of the head, the hairstyle, the facial expression - all identical. The only real difference is in the clothes: Bellingham 2011 wears a decent suit, whereas the man from 1985 is dressed in a huge, long, double-breasted pinstriped jacket that hangs on him like an overcoat. He really looks like one of Monty Python's Upper-Class Twits. Bike was run at the time by a bunch of anti-establishment ex-hippies; Mark Williams was long gone, but Roger Willis was in the editor's chair, and the tone of the magazine was still slightly in the Oz/International Times mood, full of "zorsts" and "Crazy Crankin' Capers" and "Hot-poop Stories". So it was quite a surprise that the interview with Bellingham was positive and sympathetic.
There isn't a single fleck of foam on his lapel and there's not even anything weird about his handshake. He doesn't own a British motorcycle - there's only one Trident in his life - and never has. Yet he does support MAG, albeit with 'common sense' reservations, and is the prime mover in MAG's declared ambition of setting up an all-party group of MPs to represent the interests of motorcyclists. Why this is a Good Thing we'll come to in a minute, but why should a non-biking MP from the party of Law'n'Order concern himself with the interests of motorcyclists who have often enjoyed a less than, er, orderly or law-abiding public reputation? Bellingham says he was approached by riders within his own constituency of Norwich who simply didn't conform to the stereotype: "I was impressed by their intelligence, enthusiasm and manifestly reasonable and sensible attitude, and was persuaded that motorcyclists have not had a very fair deal over the years. Conservatives also stand for the freedom of the individual and there is an increasing lobby of conservationists, road safety groups and environmentalists - mostly older people - who threaten that freedom for motorcyclists, who by and large are a much younger group."
Nothing changes, really - except for the ages. Nowadays, it's the motorcyclists who are the older group, and the enviro-loonies are the youngsters. But the battle lines haven't really altered. Personal freedom versus those who wish us to live an approved lifestyle. Their approved lifestyle.

And I don't think anyone could say "Conservatives also stand for the freedom of the individual" these days without bursting out laughing. That was then; this is now.

Convinve me I am wrong. Tell me that all the CCTV cameras and body scanners have been mothballed; that the drinking and smoking and diet quangos and advisers and champions have been wound up; that the dole queues are full of diversity co-ordinators and LGBT issues officers; that BT no longer keeps records of my emails and browsing habits and will no longer let the Government have a sneaky look if it asks nicely; that my personal details held by DVLA are not for sale to every bandit 'parking enforcement' company in the land; that my Parliament is supreme once again and that we can make our own laws to suit ourselves and our priorities.

I'm listening.

Thanks to commenter Brian for unmuddling my dates. Now corrected.


  1. "Allspeed exhausts, Koni Dial-A-Ride shocks and Tommaselli controls. Remember them?"

    Yes, and if my memory serves me correctly, Lester alloy wheels.

    Do you remember one of their contributors LJK Setright? Fond of extensive prose, which probably went over the heads of most readers, but apparently a damn good driver/rider who could show many young hotshots a clean pair of wheels.

  2. Not the only Tory with a vague interest in bikes!


    Anybody going to be at Shepton Mallet this w/e ?

  3. HB actually regained his seat in the 2001 Save The £ Election. That's why he was able to be a Shadow Minister in 2002... I'll get my anorak...

  4. MD - and Polaris fairings, and Craig Vetter screens ... I was a big fan of Long John Kick Start; in fact, it was probably reading him that got me interested in the engineering of things, rather than just riding. I can still remember his article on the desmodromic principle of valve operation, He could explain the complex with great simplicity, as long as you didn't mind sentences that made Dickens look like txtspk. Marvellous writer. I have his compilation "On Cars" waiting in pole position by my bedside right now.

    Anon - yes, I saw that. An Outlaw! They've really shed the tweeds and pinstripes image now.

    Brian - thank you, now corrected. Too many pages open, too little concentration.

  5. ...Of all the gin jointsh in all the townsh...

    I wrote those words about the XT350 in Bike in the 80s. Had just broken me leg on it on the Salter Fell trail in Bowland, Lancs and had to ride it home (after kickstarting it - ow!), so must have been feeling remarkably indulgent...

    Doing that test for them got me fired from Trials and Motocross News, my then employer.



  6. Mike Sweeney? Is that you? Hey, welcome to the blog, and thanks for commenting. Yes, your review was very positive, and one of the reasons I traded in my 350YPVS for one in about 1987. Indulgent, perhaps, but I wasn't disappointed in the bike. When I moved to Wales and found myself bikeless, I went and bought a new one, only to find that in the 5 years between Yamaha had restricted it to - I think - 19 bhp (for the Swiss market, I was told). That one was understandably a bit of a slug. But I like the family, and I am riding around on big brother even today. You were right - the 600 is way too big for a proper trail bike, but as an all-porpoise commuter/hack it takes some beating.

    Good to hear from you.


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