It was about 1994 and I’d just taken a job in England’s Lake District working in the shipping department of an engineering company. I’d been given a small pay rise over the pretty meagre salary I was bringing in at my last job so had upped sticks from my home in Lancashire and moved into a spare room at my parents’ home just west of Kendal. The job wasn’t particularly challenging; the bonus was that the systems they had in house were pretty antiquated and I knew that I’d be able to reduce the time the job needed pretty quickly, making life there a bit of a breeze. Easy money: no stress and for someone with below average A Level results and no University degree, a reasonable paycheck. Cushty, Rodders.
Kendal is a lovely place to live, just so long as you like what it has to offer, which wasn’t much in the mid 90s. We has the voice of a few fairly old-fashioned pubs and a very seedy nightlub (anyone remember The Park? I feel the need to scrub myself with Dettol and a wire brush just thinking about it….) The surrounding countryside is what draws people in. Mountains, hills, lakes rivers, all within a short drive. If you like putting on your waterproofs and lacing up your hiking boots with a rucksack full of butties for a good day out on the fells, Kendal’s the place for you.
Except I don’t, not any more. I was brought up spending every summer weekend (and a significant number of winter ones) at a static caravan park near Windermere with my parents. They met through their interest in fellwalking and as a consequence my brother and I spent a serious amount of time out in the wilds. After arriving in Kendal in my twenties I realised that a childhood full of hoofing it up and down hills had led to me losing any interest in outdoorsy stuff and I needed something else to fill my time or I’d lose my marbles completely.
The Tory government of the time had a scheme which provided funding to train people for free or a very low fee, giving them new skills with which to enter the job market and get out of unemployment. It also catered for those already in employment, charging slightly higher fees for the same (re)training. Some enterprising soul had figured out that they could open a dive school and take advantage of this source of cash, and brought in students from all over the north to train them to become professional diving instructors (PADI Divemasters, Assistant Instructors and Instructors, for the dive geeks amongst you). This school was just round the corner from where I was working and I signed up for the course. Five months, several dives a week, a load of classroom sessions and examinations and I ‘graduated’ as a Divemaster. I’d specialised in cold water diving, drift diving and some other skills that enable you to navigate blind in the vile silt at the bottom of Coniston Water, among the eels and salmon in the fast-flowing, 9m deep section of the River Lune at Devil’s Bridge and various other Lakes locations in February. The water temperature frequently went down to 5C in what we affectionately called “muddy puddles”.
Professional diver qualifications require a certain understanding of the anxieties new divers face. We can all relate to the idea that donning about 30 or 40kg of kit: a drysuit, neoprene balaclava, gloves, mask, all the breathing apparatus and 10+kg of weights can be a little unnerving for a beginner. Add that to the strange sensations of being a few metres underwater and unable to speak, it can make newbies a bit edgy. When someone really loses it underwater it’s pretty important to be able to calm someone down and evaluate the situation. That’s where the eyes come in. Once people have stopped flapping their arms and legs around, the eyes tell you everything you need to know; you know if someone is really not having a good time, or, conversely, if they are just having a bit of a flap and will be OK. It seems a little contrived but at 30m underwater all you have is a small window of someone’s mask to investigate and make a judgement. The eyes are the window to the soul.
We all know that feeling of looking into someone’s eyes and seeing them smile. Try it: find a photo of someone, doesn’t matter who, and cover their face from their cheekbones down. Do the eyes look happy? Sad? Anxious?
I love it when the eyes smile. Some people have more expressive faces that others, but the eyes rarely lie. I was frequently reminded of this during my recent interviewing or British motorcyclists active in the 1960s. At some point during each conversation there would be a moment when each participant would get lost in a moment, either reminiscing or just imagining the experience of riding at a specific moment in time. I’ve felt it a number of times: when I first passed my driving test, when I passed my bike test, and always with each first ride of a bike. It’s exhilaration: the physical sensation of riding the bike combining with the independence of riding; the “Oh wow, this is just lovely” that goes through all riders minds once in a while. It provokes rich feelings and forges powerful memories. As I’m writing this I can remember in detail every first ride on every bike, from the test rides of new bikes to specific journeys on my own two bikes.
I saw smiling eyes again a few nights ago. We were out with some of my wife’s friends and colleagues, and over dinner she mentioned to one of them that I ride bikes and study motorcycling. I was soon discussing late 1970s Hondas with a nice guy who had over twenty years of riding under his belt. Like many motorcyclists he’d moved on from bikes when his family came along, but it was clear that the memories and feelings of riding were seared into his brain. He could have been head to toe in Arctic-spec SCUBA gear and I’d have known exactly what was on his mind. The eyes said it all.
I’ve wondered why that wistful moment has been repeated so often through my interviews and I’m reaching the conclusion that motorcyclists are frequently given the opportunity to reflect on what they’re doing when they ride. Those that ride often spend a lot of time without the distractions of a car radio; riding requires a motorcyclist to be focused and clear headed (I can think of two occasions when I’ve got on the bike, ridden a few hundred metres and turned round and headed home, just because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind). Put that focused mind in a helmet, especially a full-face lid, and you’ve the perfect circumstances for a lot of reflective thought. The ride can vary from intense focus on a fast ride to a mental Tetris game of putting the blocks in the right order on a slower, less challenging one. The pleasure of the ride intensifies as the mind focuses, the memories created more powerful and enduring. I’ve ridden to all but one interview and I’ve spent the journeys home processing the discussion and reflecting on the time I spent with each person. It’s turning out to be a key part of the research process and helps me put the discussion into perspective within the wider study and to make connections between interview participants.
People walk away from bikes for many reasons. They lose the motivation, riding conditions change as roads get busier, and often financial or family circumstances dictate a move from a bike-for-one to a car-for-many as kids come along. The unlucky ones have accidents or near-misses. But when I see the eyes light up I want them to pick up where they left off, even if it’s just for a day.
Get back on the bike.