Monday, 28 May 2012

Motorcycle Memories - Part Two

Triumph and Disaster




The tracks on Monte Amiata which lead to Casa Regina (a remote farmhouse where kind friends allowed me to stay) were second nature to the Ducati.  Once kept clear and mended by contadini, now they are gullied and scarred by storm and growth.  Lumps of trachyte stick out at angles, while crumbling quartzite makes for slippery patches, all of which provides dangerous but highly entertaining tracks to drive on.  For the Ducati, with chunky tyres and purpose built suspension, this was perfect terrain, whether tearing up the slopes or scrambling down.

For the Triumph Trident T150V it was an altogether different matter.  This bike, with three cylinders combining to 750cc, was made to race on smooth surfaces, with great successes at the Isle of Man TT races in the early 1970s.  So it was not designed for scrambling up or down a volcano, especially not with passengers. 

But we did it anyway.

It was my Italo-Australian friend, Peter, who persuaded me to change.  He had sold me the Ducati (with a Waneroo number plate) and he himself was now driving an ex-police Norton Commando, with full white fairing, so I had to keep up.  I found a Triumph Trident, paid for it, drove it away, and the next year or so became a blur.  Capable of well more than 100mph, this was no toy, but with a low centre of gravity it handled superbly well.  At first I moved timidly, but very quickly I fused with the machine and hardly needed to touch the clutch to ratchet through the gears, using the pitch of the revs as a guide.

Summer weather meant shorts and tee shirts, which added to the excitement of the tarmac doing 90mph or so just inches from your toes.  The only safety device was the full face helmet, to avoid the really nasty surprise of a bee reversing into your face at Mach 1.  Otherwise, nothing mattered.  Being somewhere was ever so dull: getting there was what it was all about.

Sometimes, with others, we flew in formation, a swarm of waspish young men.  We were the Black Rebels…..  At other times, on my own, the buzz was to overtake everything and to go on overtaking until I met myself coming back.  I was Johnny Strabler.  All I needed was a Kathie.

And so to Tuscany, where this young Irish woman tracked me down.  She had been taught by another friend of mine at UCD and so blah blah we had all this in common and yes she would like to go out to lunch, so, dressed in tulle and the kind of highly risky trailing things that Isadora Duncan modelled, we set off down the track and round the mountain and had a nice lunch and several litres of red wine and then wound and wound back up the mountain and down the ever so slippery track covered in porcupine spines and wild boar droppings and gneiss and schist and all those exotic metamorphic rocks that are extremely difficult for a road bike to deal with and so we got back to the remote farmhouse. 


And that was the last I saw of her.
On another occasion the Black Rebels went out to lunch at a machicolated tufo village (Ceri) up the Via Aurelia.  It was a hot sunny Sunday and we each had a Kathie riding pillion, though, forgive me, I don’t remember who my Kathie was….  It took something like 45 minutes to get there, enjoying the drive, no sense of urgency.  It took much less than 30 minutes to get back into Rome, some testosterone buildup having happened with the abbacchio scottadito.  And then, for some reason, we had to go from Parioli, to the southern part of town, and for some reason this involved visiting someone and drinking a bottle of vodka.  On the way back Peter and I just had to race full throttle through the tunnel under the Quirinale – wonderful deafening roar of two prime motor cycles at full throttle in a tunnel:  racing.  Believe me, there is nothing like it. 

Nothing.

Irresponsible?  Io?  I was just a young blade.  A wild one.  A vitellone.

Strangely I had lost my Kathie at some point during the afternoon.
And I never saw her again either.






A Brush with the Law


Another time, in something of a hurry, I entered the Via dell’Olmata from Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore the wrong way, seeking a parking spot, before calling on my friends at the Fiddler’s Elbow.  Which happens to be right next to one of the bigger police stations in Rome.  Now normally one would not expect to be arrested for coming up a one way street on a motor bicycle – it is after all more or less walking on legs and you cannot get arrested for that – but on this occasion I suppose it might have been because I parked right outside the doorway combined with the fact that a rather zealous greenhorn was on one-way street and motorcycle parking duty, so I completely innocently found myself summoned into the building and facing a true blue fascist across the desk

He demanded to see my papers.  This was not at all polite behaviour, especially as I was a foreigner in something of a hurry, but I produced what I always carried as my documents.  He was not impressed.  In retrospect I suppose a UK provisional licence and a single piece of paper with handwritten notes to the effect that the Triumph Trident outside was mine would not convince everyone, but I began to feel a sense of indignation rising.  This coupled with the fact that I really needed to relieve the pressing desire to urinate (how can one say this with any elegance?) made me begin to feel uncooperative and so I began speaking faster and louder, as one does with foreigners, especially the police. 

My case was these were the papers I was born with and since when did the Italian authorities have the right to impugn my dignity in this way?  And besides I really needed the bathroom.  Apart from that I bought the bike from Mario in very good faith and he told me the real documents would arrive soon and I only had to go to Sidcup to pick them up and all would be well and I really really really needed to visit the gentleman’s excuse me, to take a leak, to make water, to relieve the storm drain, to…..

The Capitano looked at the Maresciallo, the Maresciallo looked at the Sergente and the Sergente looked at the Caporale.  The Caporale then looked at me, and said, quite calmly, “It is not my job to take prisoners to the toilet….”  Which meant that the Sergente looked at the Maresciallo and the Maresciallo looked at the Capitano, who looked at me, sighed, and said, “Va bene, puoi andare.”

So I left.

I actually think they quite liked the bike. 


They certainly didn’t touch it while I went to the pub.





A Bicycle made for three



Sometimes we burned the midnight oil, in those days, and sometimes it was the 2 am oil.  There were times when I would roar home from work, burning lots of oil.  Get home and sort out all the bits and pieces that get taken home from a day’s work, and then go out to play.  Burning more oil.

On occasions that meant hitting the Cristofero Colombo out through the EUR and on to Casal Palocco, returning in the early hours with every semaforo (traffic light) bleeping orange in both directions, so you held your breath and gingerly went as fast as you dared through the crossroad trusting to some power greater than yourself that absolutely nothing could cause you harm.  Eyes wide shut.  What the hell!

On other occasions the destination was central Rome, touching base with Romulus and Remus, drinking from the Wolf.  The final scene of Fellini’s “Roma” rumbled in the cortex here, and there was something special about drifting down the Via dei Fori Imperiali under a full moon, scudding clouds like the smokes of war adding drama to the lighting.  Antonio and his mad mad Polish girl rode with me, three up, down Via Cavour and under the noses of the Carabinieri by the Wedding Cake in Piazza Venezia, waving and nodding, sleeping and dreaming.

It was all a high; an adrenalin buzz, an endorphin rush, with the very three dimensionality of it endorsed by lack of helmet, jacket or boots.  A full moon was the perfect light for a night drive.  On one brilliant occasion we took the Via Cassia out beyond the limits and then scurried down the Via Settevene-Palo to skinny dip in lake Bracciano at Trevignano Romano, the black waves enticing us to splash and boil and roll and dive, at one point my equilibrium so confused I knew not which way was up nor down, by broiling excitement such.  I near drowned of fright, but floundered up and broke loose of the dark waters and spanieled dry in the flickering moonlight, spangling the sands with drops of oily night water.

Another time we burned down the Appia Antica, and then up through Ariccia, across the Via dei Laghi, and up to Monte Cavo in the Colli Albani.  The road was a ball of wool, ravelled to delude the minotaur, and the engines perspired to transport us up to near 1000m above Rocca di Papa, through volcanic woods of birch and beech and larch and such, to where a sinister nest of masts carried signals of unknown stealth, a rough church stood desolate and a baroque bar furnished us with coffee and grappa under an azure ceil. 

Shades of Nero on a night out….






THE WALL OF DEATH

At one time I thought for a moment I might have had a Kathie – though her name was Cristina, or perhaps Marta.  Marta and Cristina were twins, and one of them went out with a rugby playing musician with flowing blonde hair.  The other one didn’t really go out with me, but perhaps she fancied my bike?  Anyway I spent an inordinate amount of time in bars on the payphone arranging places and times to meet, and then would speed off to such appointments, usually to find by the time I arrived that arrangements had changed and we had to be somewhere else at another time.

Anyway all this excitement came to a head late one Sunday evening when I should have been settling myself for work on Monday, but after a brief forty-five minutes in the bar on the phone, I felt for some reason I urgently had to cross town to a familiar trysting spot.

So in something of a rush I sped to the public garage where the Triumph lurked when it wasn’t on the road, and fired her up.  In my haste, I let the clutch out too abruptly kicking her off the stand and in an instant I was half way up the garage wall and then half way across the floor.  750cc bikes sometimes act like irate stallions!  But, to show who was master, I started again, still in a hurry and this time slightly cross and boomed out into the narrow cobbled street and off into the centre of Rome. 

Crossing the Ponte Garibaldi, I had to pause for a red light, so set my feet on the road and idled.  I noticed, before the light went green, some red drops on the tarmac, but thought nothing of it. 

I got to my destination, where unsurprisingly neither Marta nor Cristina had yet arrived, and felt that my right sleeve was wet.  Not what you would expect with a rather nice suede jacket; it was usually dry when I put it on and it certainly wasn’t raining. 

I ordered a beer, perched on a stool, and learnt on the counter.  Ouch!  Something was amiss.  My right elbow was tender.  And the sleeve was indeed damp.  My wrist red.

OMG!  My jacket was bleeding!

I don’t remember whether Marta, or Cristina, arrived before I left.  I know I went home carefully.  I remember peeling off the jacket and discovering the neat round hole in my elbow (my elbow, not the jacket’s), I remember the glimpse I had of grazed white bone, and I remember how the whole arm swelled up in the next couple of days so it felt it would burst, and how the most tremendous fits of delirium set in with temperatures of about 1000º Celsius followed by absolute zero.  I vaguely remember visiting a doctor who advised me to go to a hospital to have an X-ray but not to tell them when it had happened, and I believe I dined off little but anti-biotics for the next few months.


Needless to say:  that particular Kathie didn’t work out.


Basso - The Narrow Autostrada to the Deep South

Came the summer, and the arm had healed, and the bike was up for a good long trip.  Friends had invited me to join them on the south coast of Sicily, to sizzle on the beach and drink brown, syrupy wine.  I was looking forward to it, so packed a few things, strapped them on the back, and headed off a little before dawn. 

It was August, so of course it is hot in Italy, though not always at dawn, as I realised just out of Rome.  When you drive a motorbike there is always a wind chill factor, and certainly delicate parts of the body, such as the small of the back and the kidneys are particularly susceptible to the effects of a cool breeze whipping the body heat away at 90mph, most especially if this goes on for some time.  Especially if you aren’t wearing a thick jacket…..

Anyway, I felt great.  The sun was rising behind the Monte Prenestini, the Colli Albani were fresh and green on my right, and I had a holiday ahead of me. 

The sun was still rising, this time behind the Monti Ernici of the Ciocaria, when I felt like a stop for a coffee.  I suppose I had done about eighty kilometres, but I felt great.  I was on the road.  I was heading south.  The sun was expecting me.  Only about nine hundred kilometres to go…. I had not really thought it would be quite so far.  Even going at a good speed that was still perhaps ten hours driving.  Ah well.  Have that coffee.

Set off again.  Not quite feeling so good.  Slight gripe in the tummy.  Should have had some breakfast.  Must get on.  Long way to go.  Sun coming up.

There’s a certain monotony about any long journey.  If you are in a car you can perhaps listen to music, or the radio, or talk to a passenger.  In a train, of course, you can read; look out the window.  On a bike, however, the entertainment is in the road itself.  You have to remain upright, for a start, so no dozing off.  Then you have to listen to the engine – there is nothing else to listen to.  And you have to hold on.  So your arms begin to ache.  Your neck begins to want to relax, but if you relax your head will snap back and fall off.  Then you need to stay seated.  And the seat is not like, comfortable.  It’s a saddle, and anyone who has ridden with The Wild Bunch will know that saddles can get sore.  So every so often you switch.  Ease across from one side of the bum to the other.  Then perhaps stand for a few minutes, taking the wind full on the chest and raising the centre of gravity.  Can’t do that much….

And there’s still 850 kilometres to go.

Slight gripe in the tummy.  Sort of wheezy queasy feeling.

Better stop for another coffee.

That’s a bit better.  A glass of spremuta as well.  Spremuta di limone.  Freshly squeezed lemon juice.  Very good for the stomach.

For some reason I begin to think of Zen.  Robert Pirsig enters my head, and consoles me a little as I think of his long route across the US.  Go with the flow.  Become the arrow – “Bow, arrow, goal and ego all melt into one another…”  No, that’s Eugen Herrigel.  Pirsig says, “You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.  That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing…..”  Yup.  It’s the real thing, all right, and there’s a real lot of it.

Pirsig had a better plan than me.  In fact his plans were, “deliberately indefinite, more to travel than arrive anywhere.”  He liked secondary roads, and enjoyed the scenery.  I begin to realise that this long road south is not what I really want.

As Basho wrote:
                                                “Red, red is the sun,
                                                 Heartlessly indifferent to time,
                                                 The wind knows, however,
                                                 The promise of early chill.”

And I have that early chill.  And the sun is indifferent as it heats now, glaring at me for my foolish haste.  My eyes begin to hurt.  I think back to that earlier journey on the Ducati, sitting right over the tank, peering into the gloom, winding through unknown hills.  That was hard, but there was never an anxiety about getting somewhere then, each separate moment had indeed been a separate, though infinitely expanded, moment.  Now, throbbing downwards towards the foot of Italy and the tricorn Sicily, I am anxious about getting there, and the joy of travelling is evaporating rapidly in the noonday heat.

I don’t feel well.  My back is tight and my stomach loose.  The chill has gripped my kidneys and I have to slow to be sure I’m safe.  I must keep on.  My friends expect me and I have no way of contacting them to say I will be late, or I will not come.

I start to get koans annoying me.  The sound of one hand clapping?  The sound of one valve tapping?  The sound of one cylinder cycling.  Then inexplicably I am back in the Spaniard in Old Kinsale and Paul is asking “Why is a mouse when it spins?”  And he answers himself, “The higher the fewer.”  And my mind goes, “The fire, the hewer,”  “The mire, the future,”  “The tyre, the sewer,”  and then I come to with a jolt as a vast wagon hems past me, making me aware that my speed has fallen to pure dawdle and I must get on.

As the afternoon wears on, I look for shelter.  “As I looked up at the clouds gathering round the mountains of the Hokuriku road, the thought of the great distance awaiting me almost overwhelmed my heart.  Driving myself all the time, however, I entered the province of Echigo through the barrier gate of Nezu, and arrived at the barrier-gate of Ichiburu in the province of Ecchù….”  Or rather, after nearly 300 kilometres I come off the A3 and take the SS19 into Eboli, where, according to legend, Christ stopped (or rather Christianity got no further).  I crawl to a halt at a nondescript roadside hotel, and feebly request a room.  I am on holiday, I try to tell myself, this should be fun.  But I shun any evening meal, and sleep fitfully, trying to throw the chill.




Onward, onward, I ride the six hundred (kms to go)

In the morning, having recovered a little, and with one of those melba toast breakfasts inside me that always raise the spirits, I set off again.

The road slips between mountains now, but not grand, inspiring mountains.  These are bald, bare, dry, gullied, stubbled, small mountains which just sit there and stare starkly at me as I ride on south.  They sort of smugly eye me, diminishing my achievement, which I already know is feeble.  I enter tunnels, and the disorientation is extraordinary.  I don’t know which way is up, and the bike wavers dizzily until I get a glimpse of the light at end of.

Another hundred kilometres pass, enlightened only by being stopped by a pair of young Carabinieri who want to inspect my bike (rather than my documents) and who wish me well.  Their wishes don’t work, however, as soon I begin to feel a loss of power, a strain when changing gear, the motor labouring, the whole machine heating and weakening at once.  What, I wonder would Pirsig do?  What would Phaedrus suggest?  Metaphorically at least the “walls of the canyon are completely vertical now….”  There is no exit from the road, which variously cuts and stilts its way between the rocky hills, with virtually no signs of habitation around.

I struggle on, trying not to stretch the engine, coasting on the down slopes to cool it, gently winding up if we have to ascend.

Then I spot an exit:  “Frascineto.”  I have no idea where I am nor where to go, what to do, but I cannot continue on the Autoroute in case I break down.  I must seek help somewhere.  I turn right towards Firmo – Sibari.  Castrovillari.  None the wiser, I follow the SP263 through a series of bends, then onto the SP EX SS19 and find myself entering a small town, its white buildings tumbling around a hill, the street wide and empty, little sign of life.

I park outside a bar, and enter to ask for mercy, vaguely frightened by my predicament.  I would like to say I am Johnny Strabler, the “Wild One” and that I have come to see Kathie, but my voice wavers and I ask for a glass of water instead.  A young man with curiously gangly legs leans on the bar.  I almost expect him to say, “Hi, Johnny, how you doin’?” But instead he just looks at me the way a goldfish looks at you from his bowl.

I ask the man behind the bar if he knows of a mechanic and this excites my gold fish friend, who orders me immediately to follow him.  Which I do, in a sort of trance, as he sets off on his wobbly pedal bike down narrow streets which all appear to be shut for the day.  If not for longer.

We arrive at what is clearly a motorcycle mechanic’s workshop, though the blind is down and no one is around.  Goldie assures me there will be a presence soon, and then swims off, leaving me with tumbleweed and a squeaking windvane.

I come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as time in this part of the south.  The hills might as well be covered in cactus for all their use to me.  The buildings are closed and the street is empty.  Even the cats and dogs show signs of terminal decline.

Then, just when I am beginning to wonder if this isn’t just a very bad dream, with elements of Bad day at Black Rock, a man appears, who apologises for having been at a funeral.  In confusion, I think for a moment that it might have been mine, but then he touches the Triumph as if he has been expecting us.  It’s as if I have been riding a Derby winner and he has a pocket full of sugar lumps. I have made his day, it seems, and at long long last he is going to be able to use his Imperial Tool Kit!



I hadn’t even thought.  Triumph, manufactured in the UK, heart of the Empire, would be measured and made in inches.  Here, south of Eboli, where Christ didn’t even dare to venture, everything is metric.  It’s a miracle!  We break into a dance, joining arms and swinging each other about in a state of celestial union. 

But it will take all afternoon, possibly even more.  I will have to stay in town.

But where?

Down that road, there’s my brother’s place.  Tell him I sent you.

The dancing has muddled me.  I am in a completely foreign place.  I am a complete foreigner.  Probably no one else from anywhere else has ever been here.  Ever.  And I am trusting my time machine to an unknown stranger who tells me to stay with his brother….

It turns out that his brother runs a small hotel.  But the only other people there seem to be from next door, and I don’t believe anyone else is staying there.

Time ticks on.  I present myself for an evening meal.  I am served.  I eat.  I do not die.  The girl who serves me is friendly.  This in itself is slightly worrying, but when I have finished my meal, and there is clearly nothing else to have, she asks me if I would like, “Anything else?” 

What else could there be? 

She couldn’t mean….?

I am horrified.  My spine freezes as I think of the consequences of abusing the hospitality of the brother of my mechanic.  I think of my head, nastily bloody and detached from my otherwise pointless body, perhaps appearing in the hay as a horse somewhere wakes in the morning.  I mean, this is Calabria.

“NO.  I’M FINE THANK YOU.”  And I hurry to my room.

But then, as I climb the stairs, alone, I realise, with a sudden shiver, I am not a “Wild One.” 

And probably never was. 

More of a Mild One, really.




Elegy written in a country churchyard - Thomas Gray



“Hard by yon wood….”



Thomas Gray, who spent most of his adult life in Pembroke College, Cambridge, visited his mother and aunt at their home in the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Poges, and may well have been inspired to write his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in the vicinity of the parish church of St Giles in this village.  It is, however, possible that his reflections were inspired by various scenes in the neighbourhood, such as the “ivy-mantled tower” of St Laurence’s Church in nearby Upton, and there is one theory that it was actually inspired by an altogether different location, at Everdon, in Northamptonshire.  Whatever the fact, Gray is buried near his mother in Stoke Poges, and a large and inelegant memorial to him stands nearby, with lines from the Elegy engraved thereon.

The poem, one of only thirteen that Gray saw published in his lifetime, is one of the best-known and best-loved in the English language.  In the mid-18th century this poem was the torch song for a group of writers who shelter under the collective title of “Graveyard Poets,” due to their melancholic verses, often set in graveyards, which reflect on mortality.  He most probably wrote the first draft (Stanzas Wrote in a Country Churchyard) in August 1742, as evidenced in a letter he wrote to his friend, Horace Walpole: “I have been here at Stoke a few days (where I shall continue good part of the summer); and having put an end to a thing, whose beginnings you have seen long ago. I immediately send it you. You will, I hope, look upon it in light of a thing with an end to it; a merit that most of my writing have wanted, and are like to want, but which this epistle I am determined shall not want.”

Stoke Poges, on the edge of Slough and uncomfortably close to the busy A & E department of Wexham Park hospital, has lost a little of the charm Gray may have detected there in the 1740s. It is only about an hour’s walk, however, down Duffield Lane and Collum Green Road, to the hamlet of Hedgerley, where certain aspects of rural life and vernacular architecture have been bypassed by the A335 and the M40 of progress, whose drowsy rumblings now “lull the distant folds.”


We are on the edge of Farnham Common and Burnham Beeches here, but it is less frequented and the lanes are still so narrow a coach and eight would struggle to get through.  In Gray’s time, before the enclosure acts (with Gray’s friend Walpole’s connivance), parcelled up the commons and hedged in the woods and fields, it would have been a wonderful wander, and indeed would have taken him “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,” though now of course it is hard to find “rugged elms,” a “straw-built shed,” harvests yielding to sickles, or jocund ploughmen driving their teams afield!


But there is a corner, or two in fact, of Hedgerley that is forever England.  Though the current Church of St Mary was built in 1852, there have been churches on this site since 1237, and it was only(!) poor soil and springs that put paid to the last one.  And as the current edifice is constructed of local flint, stone, wood and tile, it breathes an air that belies its comparative youth. 


Anyway, in the yew tree’s shade there is “many a mouldering heap,” where the forefathers of the hamlet sleep.  They will not all have been farm labourers, for since Gray we have gone through both the industrial and the technological revolution, and we have developed both the BMW and the Lexus, to name but a pair of exemplar vehicles from a random sample of those parked outside the timber frame dwellings around.  So not quite so many are roused from their lowly beds by the cock’s shrill clarion to break the stubborn glebe with their furrow.


As Gray says, however, “the paths of glory lead but to the grave.”  Ambitions, heraldry, pomp and wealth, lie in this neglected spot just as surely as the, “short and simple annals of the poor,” fade in the destiny obscure, though in this cool sequestered vale of life we hold the memories of those we loved, “in lonely contemplation.”

And so it is I wander among the frail memorials, and through into yon wood, or Church Wood as it is known.  Here there is a Reserve belonging to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which, with the help of local charities and volunteers, endeavours to manage the woodland with as little intervention as possible, so that decaying wood, for example, contributes to the biodiversity, although non-native species, such as sycamore, are controlled.  Beech, oak and ash trees predominate, but there are also wild cherries, hazels, holly and the occasional rowan.  The paths, which are kept clear of vegetation, allow you to admire the bluebells, and the primroses, which abound in their seasons.  Outside the reserve there are meadows filled with buttercups, but also hedges of hawthorn, and grazing fields
.

Within the wood the RSPB has provided nest boxes for a variety of species of birds, and in Spring you can hear the chitter chatter of great, blue and coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches and the tuneful songs of robins, blackcaps, blackbirds and thrushes.  You may also hear great spotted woodpeckers and, if really patient, in summer you might see a treecreeper scampering up, or a nuthatch climbing down and round the trunk of a larger tree.  You are sure to hear, from time to time, the harsh cry of the jay, and probably the football rattle of the jackdaw, and high above it all you may hear the mewing of buzzards.


As a natural and virtually unspoiled woodland there is a wealth of wildflowers too, apart from the bluebells and primroses already mentioned.  Wood sorrel and anemones, lesser celandine, honeysuckle and violets cluster in the undergrowth; speedwell, forget-me-nots and bugles creep into the graveyard, where perhaps they were planted long ago; and hemlock, sweet cicely and greater stitchwort mix with the scarlet pimpernel by the wayside. 


Between the wood and the Old Rectory lies the Glebe Field, which was purchased by the Parish Council in order to preserve the ambience and protect it from development.  It was used as a paddock for horses and had become invaded by scrub, ragwort and bracken, but now with seasonal mowing and careful management with cattle grazing it is once more a grassland where cowslips are beginning to flourish.



I cannot help but feel that Thomas Gray would be at home here.  To rest your head upon the lap of earth in this quiet churchyard would not seem so bad.



And if, in the meantime, you happen still to be alive then you could do worse than stroll down the path and drop into the flagstone floored public bar of The White Horse.  This pub wouldn’t have been quite the same in Thomas Gray’s day, but it might well have been similar, with beer straight from the barrel, natural fires blazing on the two hearths, a pretty flower garden out the back, and somewhere to hitch your horse in the front. 


“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day…..”  It’s time for a pint!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Motorcycle Memories - Part One


The Ducati Diaries



It was a perfect day.  The machine was behaving well and the sun gleamed through trees, shimmering and glinting, as I whipped along.  The road, smooth and reasonably wide, weaved up the hillside, leaving the lake behind me.  Chestnut trees gnarled in the wood, grasses switched in my slipstream.

As I breasted the hill I felt on top of the world, for a moment, king of the moment.  It was Italy, it was a glorious summer day, and the road was all mine, with the aid of my Ducati 350.  One cylinder was enough for me, noisy but fun, powerful enough to pull up a hill and keep on going.

Then the down side, sweeping round the curves, leaning into the wind, and wheeling down and down.  But the road ran round and round to the left, too steep, too tight, and I couldn’t make it. Snap decision, quick as mercury, I knew it would hurt to slap down skidding on the hard surface, so I sat up, straightened out and headed into the void, straight off the edge, down into the soft bank and the green.

What was worst, I was wearing white jeans.  I was grass-streaked and earth-smeared as I pushed the choked bike back towards the road, helped by a bemused driver who had seen my flight.  Miraculously nothing (excepting pride and jeans) was damaged.  With a certain amount of kick I got her going again.  With a certain amount of grist I got back on.  With a certain amount of trepidation, I drove off.  Why had I worn white jeans?





The Campo in Siena.  Up high on the roof tops on a friend’s balcony, high above the cornfield crowds of passionate, effervescent, seething, molten people, fused together in the bleaching sun, cheering the flag-wavers, the rolling cart, the palio itself.  Heat shimmered up, both reflected radiation from the sun, and also the generated sweat power of hundreds of people pressed together in a compress of energy.  Ow!  There goes one!  And handed overhead another body is taken to the cooler, to miss the event in painful, solitary dehydration. 

The race, as condemned as the Grand National, is Jack Dempsey to Jackie Pallo, the real thing to a thespian charade (no real disrespect, Jackie – you were a great comedian!).  A swelter of hyper horses career round this scallop shaped piazza three times at (literally) breakneck speed, the hooves pounding the temporary earth, the bare-back riders (professionals from far afield – none homeboys at all) whipping their steed and their rivals with vicious quoits, driving into the mattresses that cushion the sharpest turns.  It’s breathtaking and horrifying, bullfight blood tingling, and it’s all over in the time it takes a stallion to serve.

And soon a certain peace descends.  The Siennese either jubilate off to feast and dance all night, or the grumbling, angry losers fragment away into their dark brooding lairs until another day revitalises them.  My hostess and friends share a last glass of wine, a light-hearted biscuit, and farewell one another as the evening dims.  I to my bike, and I bareback down the cobbled street into the gathering dusk.

It should have taken me an hour to the farmhouse on Monte Amiata; an hour of steady roar and simple driving, but somehow the road eludes me and in a moment’s distraction at the steep road crossing at Montalcino sends be on a crazy loop which falls down to the Val d’Arbia from which I have to trek back up all the winding way to Castel del Piano and thence home.

And it is dark now.  Dense, inky dark, which would be outside a car, and which two headlamps might scare a little, but perched on the tank of my Ducati, peering through goggles like a frogman, the dark surrounds me, smothers me, blinds me and makes every turn an unknown, every bump or stone a leap of faith.

The only lights are those of passing cars, either from behind, momentarily helping me see where I am, or, dazzlingly from ahead, sometimes snarling at me from out of nowhere.  If only there was a moon, or even a few stars, but here in rough Tuscany, on this particular summer night, there is no sign from the heavens, and less still from the civilised world.  I am on my own.  No streetlamp to comfort me, not even the slender gleam from a friendly window.  It is all intense concentration, a blindfolded nightmare in a link trainer that has become unleashed from its base.  At any moment I fear the judder of a collision, the bone-jarring crash of a solid object or the tearing graze of some startled animal, a wild boar, or porcupine. 

I expect to fall, to trip, to skid.  As I work the clutch and gear changes, twisting the accelerator, wrangling the handle bars at each hairpin turn, I feel more and more like a jockey in that crazy race.  In the blackness I imagine I am fighting through the pack, whipping my opponents on either side, clutching the flanks tight with my knees, wrenching the head to make the turn before the inevitable thudding crash. 

The crowd roars in my ears, I can hardly believe it, I am ahead, I am racing for the finish line, speeding recklessly forward, into the light and splendour of victory!  The piazza in Castel del Piano is in uproar!  I have survived.

Aching, bruised, exhausted, I limp up to my friend’s door, and knock.  No response.  I knock again, louder, concerned now that I might have to sleep out in the cold, but ashamed of having to wake them up at three a.m.  Another tentative, apologetic, very sore little knock.  The last one…..  A shutter is thrown open above.  “Che vuoi?”  “What the hell do you want?” 



Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita



It is mid August.  In Malcesine Elvis is dead.  Elvis is dead everywhere.  The world is in shock and I don’t help by waking the entire campsite with the shattering kick start the Ducati needs for a dawn departure.  An irate Tonino sleepily chastises me, but I charge through the gate before he can catch me.

It’s good to be on the road; I have miles to go before I sleep; all the way to…. Tuscany?  Rome?  How far can I get?  In the sparkling morning, I whizz south down the Eastern shore of Lake Garda.  Tall, pencil thin cypresses standing to attention as I sputter past, a slightly unhealthy reek of oil burning in my wake.

Into the flatlands of the Po Valley.  Skirting Mantua, tempted by the lure of the apartments of the Ducal Palace and the insular grandeur of the city, but anxious to get on south.  Then the bike starts to struggle, choking and coughing.   Perhaps it wanted to climb the equine stairs within the court of the Gonzaga, to rest in the frescoed splendour of Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi, but  something is not right, for sure, and it seems to be dying under me.  “Come on, girl,” I urge, “Forza!”

But, oh, yes, she most certainly lacks the strength.  And, hiccough by hiccough she dies.  I falter to a stop on a long straight stretch of road, in a limitless plain, populated by vast farms, each one a lifetime from the next.  I look one way into an empty, flat, nothing.  I turn about and face the same. The morning has started to heat up, and the road glares, the fields shimmer.  And I know no one.  “Miserere di me!  Mi sono perduto!”  I exclaim to the vastness.  “Che faccio?”

Then, an apparition.  Out of the silent distance, a murmur arises, then a puttering sound and a little cloud of dust appears.  An ancient Vespa approaches, with a young lad astride, smiling like Virgil, and perfectly disposed to help the stranded stranger.  Within minutes we have fetched a tow rope from his home and are on our way, the whining Vespa tugging my silent, limping, abused Ducati with a rope around her forks.  It’s not long before we reach a garage where another angel fills the thirsty sump with rich black oil and pretty soon I am southbound again, leaving my two newfound friends behind, though I still carry their kindnesses with me after all these years, (and still smart at my foolishness…..)

Somehow I negotiate the traffic through the centre of Bologna, buffeted by the slipstreams of lorries, squeezed and jostled by stampedes of cars, careless of laws, rights, needs, custom, manners, or even sense.  The medieval towers, and gastronomic glories beckon, but I must keep on.  I cannot stoop yet.  I am sleepy, and there is a tension in my temples from the strains and vibrations of long-distance driving on a bike designed for the dirt track and sport rather than the rigours of the grand tour.  I take the road to Florence, but I have lost the way I planned, the straight, fast, tunnelled, zip wire road that pierces the mountains.  The one I find myself on, eventually, with no map in front of me, no sat-nav (a device so far in the future the Pope hadn’t got one) is the Strada Statale Number 65, not even the old main road to Prato; this is the longest, windiest, most convoluted, cusséd, switchback road ever constructed.  Had I stopped for a moment and consulted a map, there is no way I would have even contemplated this route, but the sign said “Firenze” and I obeyed.

It is now overcast and clouds build and descend to meet me as I climb into the Apennines. To start with, I share the valley with the railway line, which reassures me that this must be OK, but after Pianoro, the track dives into a hole in the ground and I see it no more.  And the curves begin.  And the curves become bends.  And the bends become twists.  A sign says, “Serie di Curve,” and the series is never-ending.  At Loiano I reach 714 metres above sea level, and begin to feel the cold.  I stop and restore myself with a tiny black coffee, loaded with sugar, and a tiny shot of grappa, as if I were about to go off piste.

There is now no sky above, only cloud around.  I am like a fighter pilot (“I know that I shall meet my fate”) sheltering from the enemy in hostile elements.  Oh this is fun, I try to convince myself, and I rattle on, turning and turning in widening gyres.  At the Passo di Raticosa I reach 958 metres above sea level.  The air seems thin, and weak and grey, and my bones begin to feel the chill.  I stop for a tiny black coffee, three spoons of sugar and a shot of grappa, to revive my flagging spirit. 

At La Casetta the road splits, and the sign to Florence directs me onto the Number 503 to Firenzuola, descending through steep twists to 422 metres.  Still fifty kilometres to Florence!  Coffee.  Sugar.  Grappa.  It’s beginning to get dark, or is that my eyes?  The clouds intensify, thickening like soup and I rise again to 882 metres at Rifredo, which seems an apt name to me.  I can hardly see the road signs, hardly see the road.  It is as if no one at all has ever been here before nor heard of it.  It is a dark wood, and I find myself lost, a paradox of twists that confuses me further.  Who could have made a road here?  Why? 

My teeth chatter if I don’t grind them; my hands are raw inside their wet gloves; my shoulders ache and every so often I have to stand on the footrests to relieve the pain of sitting, bumping on the saddle.  The road enters a wood, gloomily visible as vertical stripes in the dark grey mist, and I begin to hallucinate – I glimpse a light-footed leopard, then a raging lion, trembling the air, and a she-wolf…..  Then, as I begin, finally, to descend from the mountains, a shade appears, the shape of an old man, wrapped in silence.  I appeal to him to take pity on me, the snarl of the motor drowning my words.

I am there still.

Despite all the good things I encountered, I prowl those winding roads in my dreams, some half a lifetime later.  Cold to my heart, lost in the wilderness, hopeless and without direction, immersed in the harsh, wild, rugged wood.  

The memory renews bitter fears, but kindles hope.