Choose your idols carefully – David Gandy and Steve McQueen

I’m not a fan of Steve McQueen. I think a lot of his acting was overrated and relied too much on his looks rather than acting talent. Most know him for his role in Bullitt, a poor film with a car chase that always appears on daft lists of “10 greatest car chases of all time!!!” that seem to serve little purpose. The Great Escape gets ever more cheesy as time passes He looked sharp in The Thomas Crown Affair (and slept in his tailored suits for a few nights before filming to make them look more lived in and less fresh) and had a thing for racing motorcycles and fancy cars but dig a little deeper and you find that he was actually a bit of a miserable sod. He freely acknowledged he wasn’t much of an actor “I’m not a great actor – let’s face it. I don’t have a great deal of scope” and you’d be forgiven for labeling him as a sociopath based on some of his quotes such as “I always do what I want to do” or “I live for myself and I answer to nobody”. He was a nasty piece of work, quite happy to treat the women in his life like crap, cheating on them and beating up his wife Neile. He wouldn’t let Ali McGraw work when she was with him (threatening divorce if she did) and if the stories are to be believed, he was overly fond of the Bolivian marching powder.

Hardly a wholesome role model for modern men.

So when I see this quote in an interview with superstar male model David Gandy in Red magazine, my blood boils:

‘His love of all things British makes him call into question the lost art of being a gentleman, “We’ve become so obsessed by boys. There’s almost a backlash against true men. Where are the Paul Newmans or Steve McQueens of the world?”‘

Newman and McQueen couldn’t be more different. I imagine most younger people know Newman for the face on the salad dressings, but this is a guy who was married fifty years and donated $400 million to charity.

Two very different legacies, wouldn’t you agree?

The problem here is that Gandy has been brainwashed by the popular mythology, and we should all know better. In the last few years McQueen has been used to promote motorcycle clothing ranges by all sorts of manufacturers, particularly Barbour, who released a range of jackets that were marketed using imagery of McQueen in their clothing. Ol’ Steve liked to race motorcycles and did the International Six Day Trial in Scotland in the 60s, wearing the standard trials clothing of the time, waxed cotton suits (see, this is related to my research, albeit distantly). Barbour relaunched the clothing of this period around 2009 and it was very successful – though the introduction of a jacket in the range with false, rubber mud splashes on it was a step too far. One online retailer uses his image to sell helmets, gloves, jackets, even a reproduction of the jumper (aka sweater for my new friends here in the US) he wore in Great Escape. Buy our clothing, look like McQueen, be effortlessly cool.

I’m firmly of the opinion that coked-up wife-beaters are pretty low on the evolutionary scale. As unsavoury human beings go, they’re *just* above the kiddy-fiddling Gary Glitters of the world. Where Glitter has been all but eradicated from popular culture, McQueen is celebrated. What does this say about celebrity and the relative positions of women and children in a supposedly civilised western society? We cherish and venerate children but their mothers are somehow seen as secondary? If a cool actor happens to spend his time beating his wife up, are we happy to cheerfully ignore that? “Cool” seems so intangible to most people, but whatever it is, it isn’t a term to be used about McQueen.

We love our screen idols frozen in time, dying young and leaving a legacy of immortal good looks, and McQueen seems to have been better preserved than most. But he’s also had his violent and controlling nature whitewashed from his history, further cementing his position in twentieth century film lore as the King of angsty cool. That’s just plain wrong.

David Gandy is a hard working chap, and usually seems reasonably on the ball. He is worth a few quid (£10m or so), investing in businesses and occasionally doing the odd bit of style journalism. I get the impression he’s very careful about his personal image in an industry where image and appearance is everything. But he’s way off the mark on this. McQueen was/is no role model for a real man, never was, never will be.


Three months in….

I’m sat on my big blue sofa at the end of a long day. One of the dogs is curled up next to me making horrendous smells, the other is in the bedroom with my wife. I’m surrounded by all the same stuff we’ve had for the last few years but the location is different. 

Three months ago my wife Anna and I arrived in Los Angeles on a one way flight from London Heathrow. We had 6 huge bags, a pair of Permanent Resident visas and a vague plan to create new lives for ourselves in California. The California Border Patrol treated us kindly and within an hour of stepping off the plane we were sent on our way, finding ourselves outside the terminal, giddily taking selfies by the taxi ranks at Terminal 2. We’d gone from living in a several hundred year old country cottage in deepest, prettiest, rural Kent to winging it in Los Angeles. Talk about getting out of your comfort zone….

We arrived on a Monday. By the Friday we’d seen a stack of houses in the various areas east of Downtown. We trekked round Eagle Rock, Highland Park and our favourite, Pasadena, looking at places and by the Saturday we’d put in an offer on a very nice Spanish style home built in 1922. The offer was accepted by the Monday and the clock then started ticking on the 6 weeks required to complete the sale. Putting in an offer on a property is a serious business in California: your agent has to prove that the funds are available and if an offer is accepted, the deal is legally binding (albeit with options to can the deal if there’s a structural problem, or to pay a financial penalty to the other party if you walk away without good reason). It’s a great system, and we quickly started the process of the various property inspections secure in the knowledge that the deal was safe if they showed no major issues. 

We spent some time in hotels & motels and then spent a delightful 3 weeks in a house owned by our realtors in Lake Arrowhead, a town in the mountains north of San Bernardino. Our very good friend Michael came to visit and we were finally able to eat at home, catch up on work and curb the weight gain we’d been experiencing since arriving. Soon enough we were moving in, sleeping on a second hand mattress in the lounge whilst we waited for out furniture to arrive and for some renovation and decorating work to be completed. We’ve been in here six weeks now and the place is lovely. Anna has painted it inside and out – even during a heatwave when temperatures were well over 100F during the day – and has done a load of garden work. In England we had a white cottage with roses and box hedges; here we have a pink house with succulents and Agave. Anyone for Tequila?

Pasadena is a great city. Old Town is the centre of sorts, a great place to eat, drink and shop, with 90% of everything you’d ever need on or near one long street, often in lovely older buildings. Our house is in an area called the Historic Highlands and is full of older homes and lots of mature trees. The San Gabriel Mountains are always on view somewhere here and act as a natural perimeter to the sprawling mass of LA – with another natural barrier to the west of Pasadena in the form of the Arroyo, a valley right at the western edge of Pasadena where the Rose Bowl Stadium is located (and where Paul McCartney has a big house). Crime is relatively low and everything is a little more spread out than in the areas south and west of here. Within a few days we’d met most of our neighbours on our block as they dropped by to introduce themselves. All the stereotypes of laid back Californians were confirmed in those first few days as we received bunches of flowers, invites for dinner, drinks and parties and a nice banana and walnut cake. We’re something of a curiosity, being the odd English couple with the skinny dogs and the odd old cars. 

The English accent goes a long way here. A few nights ago we went out for some sushi and did the thing none of the white, middle class people do here, which was to catch the bus. LA Metro has a great network of trams and buses that are really handy but almost exclusively used by Black and Hispanic customers. As a result the buses aren’t always busy outside rush hour and our Sushi Shuttle only had two other people on it. When we got off, the woman driving the bus heard our accent, stopped chatting with the other two passengers (friends of hers) and parked the bus in the bus stop for a while whilst we chatted about who we were, why we were here and what we were up to. Weird, but really nice and unexpected.This place continually surprises us and challenges our expectations in some really fun ways.

Some things are very different. There is a protocol to conversation that feels quite unnatural to “Brits Abroad” at first, even those who are well travelled: the use of polite greetings and enquiry in conversation: “Hello, how are you today?” It feels similar to the way French people say Bonjour to each other at every available opportunity (I’m reminded of visiting my friend Cheeko in France and going to little village bars where a new arriving customer greets and shakes hands with everyone in the place when they walk in before getting stuck into the beer). The nonchalance of British social interaction betrays a reserve that doesn’t exist here. At first it feels false but when you tune into it, it’s more authentic and pleasant than you might at first assume. Brits chill out and are nicer to each other when the sun shines; here the sun shines 330 days a year. It’s not rocket science to work out why people are relaxed and nice to each other here, and whilst I know we’re in a nice part of California and I’m sure that plays a part too, but have yet to meet anyone who is an all-out arsehole even in the rougher parts of town.

The one thing that is in complete contrast to everything I’ve written in the last paragraph is the way people drive. I’ve driven all over Europe: been run off the motorway by a lunatic Belgian driver, hammered along autobahns at daft speeds, been scared witless by Italian bus drivers on the Amalfi coast and jousted with the Frenchies on the Peripherique at rush hour, but nothing, and I mean NOTHING compares to the absolutely terrifying way people drive on freeways here. On the urban side streets the limit is 25mph and the pace is very slow. Main roads move faster but are still pretty chilled out. Get on the freeway and it’s like a switch flicks in every driver’s brain that turns them from calm, attentive drivers to complete nutcases who’ve just forgotten what their indicators and mirrors are for and that consider six feet to be a perfectly acceptable distance at which to to travel behind the car in front at 70 mph. Motorcyclists are no better. They undergo training that’s roughly equivalent to a CBT test in the UK to get their full licence and then spend most of their time whizzing around on 200mph Hayabusas clad in t-shirts and shorts. Occasionally we’ll see riders in shorts and a t-shirt but wearing an expensive full face helmet and spine protector. Odd. I know that a spine is irreplaceable, but I’ve heard that skin grafts can smart a bit and feet sometimes have a tendency to separate from ankles when trainer-wearing riders take a tumble. $200 buys a set of kevlar jeans and a mesh jacket with armour with the lovely cooling airflow of a string vest but no one wears them. Hence the rider injury and fatality rates here are ridiculously high. 

Cars are indispensable here – without one life is seriously restricted. In the early twentieth century Pasadena had the highest car ownership per capita not just in California, or the USA, but the world, so they get what cars are about here and there’s a great respect for the older stuff like the cars I drive but also cars like the Tesla, Nissan Leaf and the ubiquitous Prius (as I write I’m having a real Alan Partridge Lexus/Lexi moment, wondering if the plural of Leaf is Leaves and what the hell do I do with pluralising Prius? Prii? I really should get out more). The Pasadena Art Center College of Design churns out phenomenal car designers that work all over the world and once a month they open the place up to the public and display what the students are working on. The downside to the need to drive everwhere, even with the great bus drivers, is that people tend to think it’s not such a big deal to have a few drinks and drive home. DUI (Driving Under the Influence) is just not perceived the same way as it is in the UK, where I don’t think as many people take the risk. It’s policed by the LAPD and other Police Departments but they actually publish the locations of their DUI checkpoints in advance and always have increased presence on national holidays. Drinking habits are very different to the UK (people drink a lot less overall) but still I feel less safe as a sober driver when the sun goes down. Recently we’ve been using Uber to get around and it works great – book a car on a smartphone, the fare is cheaper than a cab and paid by Paypal so no cash changes hands. I’ve heard it’s just started in London and I fully expect the Black Cab drivers to go bonkers. 

So there we are, three months in and a lot learnt about our new home. We’re still meeting new people and expanding our lives to make the most of where we are and in a few months I think we’ll have a nice balance of work and play that will keep us busy but not so stressed that we can’t stop to enjoy the climate and the beaches, mountains and, above all the diverse culture that’s right on our doorstep. We’ve also spent enough time here over the last couple of years to be able to hit the ground running and we already have a great network of friends and interesting places we like to go which should mean that anyone who cares to visit us will also have a good time (the current room rate is a box of Earl Grey – the proper teabags, not the silly little ones with the string on – and a bottle of Single Malt, thank you very much. Nurofen Meltlets can’t be found here and would be gratefully received as well, if you can manage it; all this unpacking has played havoc with my glass back).

Toodle pip! 

Fish, chips and Eastenders; the motorcycle club as compensation for fragmented communities


I know, nothing for months and two posts in so many days. I’m clearly trying to make up for being so slack.

So this evening Mrs A and I went to our local fish and chip shop for a sit down meal. Cod, chips, mushy peas and a Sprite please. All very straightforward, tasty stuff. The place that we’ve been going to during our stay in Bromley has a TV in the corner which usually blasts out whatever soap opera is on at that point in the evening. Nothing too remarkable about that and I guess it is a fairly comforting and familiar background for the mostly female clientele there, many of whom dine alone. An unusual phenomenon.

The TV and the solitary diners got me thinking about the popularity of soap operas and the purpose they serve. These programmes tend to focus on a single, small community in a fixed location. Coronation Street, Eastenders’ square, Emmerdale’s farming village, all are established and confined within strict physical boundaries. Characters come and go in them all but all have certain key long term characters that are familiar faces, anchoring the show to a continuity of structure and by implication, of community. Leave a few years between watching episodes of a particular show and you can bet there’ll be a familiar face when you come back to it: a Ken Barlow, an Ian Beale or suchlike in broadly similar plotlines (an extreme example of Warhol’s opinion that a good film is one you can walk away from for a while, come back, and it not matter). Those characters signify a continuity to life in a smaller community space that is absent in the world in which most of us live: one of long working hours, a relatively transient workforce and expanding urban centres with ever more diverse communities. More people working ever harder and moving around more to earn their pay; household income increases but earners are left time poor. The post-war democratisation of transport had effects that were economically attractive but left us socially depleted. We swapped stable communities for fatter wallets but the craving for those social anchors never went away. The gap is filled in part by the mundane, restricted normality of the soap opera. Not quite “Opium  des Volkes” but not a million miles off.

The soap opera shares its origins with the kitchen sink drama – the portrayal of real, gritty lives in working class urban communities, laid bare for us all to see. Albert Finney’s Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night Sunday Morning lives a life of reckless abandon borne from the frustrations of his factory job. He gets his pleasure from booze and illicit sex and wants to escape the drudgery. He doesn’t. But where soap operas and kitchen sink dramas differ is that the latter comes out of the frustrations of young working class people wanting to escape their place in life; they’re about dreams and aspiration. Soap operas amplify and dramatise the normal but rely on character templates from the same locations and class positions as the films. They’re peculiarly introverted, the physical constraints of the set focusing the activity of characters on events in the pub, hairdresser or the launderette; their dreams equally confined. Transgressive characters are the least secure, their expulsion always seeming imminent. Their inevitable return is a threat to the community’s stability. The most frustrated characters are often, unsurprisingly, teenagers.

The key social and economic shifts start to happen to a lesser extent before the second world war and to a much greater degree from 1945 onwards. Urban centres reconstruct and expand after the war (with varying success as high rise living is introduced) and we start to see an increase in the use of personal transport. This of course starts with the bicycle a long time before (see also: the old joke about the enriched gene pool it causes) and in the post war period we see huge increase first in motorcycle use and then cars. Take into account the way London and other major cities were reshaped by German bombs during the Blitz and you can easily see how the combination of a changing built environment, a vast expansion of personal transportation and improvements in pay, employment rights and working conditions start to have profound effects on community and the capacity of an individual to find work further from home than public transport previously allowed. Many of my interviewees cited the motorcycle as a means of getting to work that reduced their commuting time, significantly increasing their leisure time. They could also choose from a wider selection of jobs within a wider radius from home, increasing their earning potential. Travelling further gave them more free time & more money to spend in it, often in social spaces a fair distance from home. Quite the opposite of the typical soap opera plotline with the local boozer as the hub of the community.

So give people a set of wheels in a time of almost full employment and they go out and get the better paid jobs. Stretch that over 50 years and the effect is magnified many times over: You might have grown up in the same place as your parents but ended up somewhere very different. If you have kids, chances are they won’t live near you. I started life in Wigan but soon went to school in Bolton. My first job was in Manchester, where I lived for several years after a year or so in Cumbria. From Manchester to London to Kent then back to London and from here, who knows? Technology changes how and where we work, be it a mode of transport or the laptop on which I’m writing this. And as the idea of our domestic location being fixed in perpetuity wanes, so does our sense of community, the comforting emotional ties to those around us. In fragmented communities we seek stability; an anchor to keep us rooted to the physical space we occupy. Stability takes the form of familiar faces, spaces and routines – and the soap opera fills some of those functions. Routines provide the familiarity that allows people to function on autopilot: the same faces on TV, the same drive to work or bus to the office, the same school run, the same supermarket and the identikit high street where people buy the same brand of underwear and those expensive t shirts that all their friends wear, the ones printed with the name of a town in California that means nothing*.

If we accept that the motorcycle is the tool that takes the young teenager away from their community in the 1960s, it’s equally to remember that it is the catalyst for the formation of new youth cultures. The motorcycle facilitates the formation of new social structures as young people, empowered with unprecedented mobility and earnings, come together in places like the 59 Club or the Ace Cafe. These new communities don’t originate from individuals’ geographical proximity but from a love of the machines that provide speed, freedom and access to new and exciting places full of teenagers from far and wide. Freedom is a powerful drug and can have profound, lasting effects; motorcycles changed the lives of my interviewees, all for the better. Lifelong friendships are forged through shared experiences on two wheels and the feeling of a wide open throttle on a big bike stays etched on the mind forever. Several people talked about how “that time” was special. Each interview had a moment when the individual’s eyes lit up as they recollected a specific journey, a particular bike or even just the magical feeling of being a teenager as teenage cultures began. All night cafes, rock’n’roll, fast bikes, leather jackets that scared the old folks and made headlines. Knowing that your best buddies grew up knowing that feeling too is the tie that has bound many together ever since. It must have been wonderful. 

Motorcyclists dreams are different, their horizons further, and they get there faster. Ride safe.

*Hollister is famous for one thing only, and it isn’t “So Cal inspired” t-shirts : it’s the site of an infamous 1947 motorcycle riot in California on which the Brando film The Wild One was based. I’ve no idea who Abercrombie and Fitch are and, even if you own one of their overpriced t-shirts, neither have you. Ralph Lauren? Bet you’ve never watched polo, never mind played it. You’re consuming brands with a fake, constructed and aspirational heritage, buying a stylistic allegiance to a fantastic falsehood. There’s more integrity in a bag of chips. Try harder. Lose the meaningless logos. You’ll feel liberated.

The next stages

It’s been a while since I last posted anything on here, not for any other reason that life has conspired to keep me rather busy. A combination of putting our home on the market, dealing with viewings and the constant cleaning they involve, agreeing a deal just before Christmas and finally moving out at the end of January has meant a lot of time away from the research, and also this site.

That said, since the last post I’ve taken care of most of the housekeeping that resulted from the interviewing I did in late summer / early Autumn in 2013 and interviewed another 6 people. Those interviews have all been transcribed by the wonderful Marian at Sound Words; can’t recommend her enough! One final interview was carried out at the end of January with a former motorcycle racer who was world champion several times in the 1950s (any guesses?). Alas, he went on holiday straight after the interview so I’m still waiting for clearance to use the transcript. If that comes through I’ll write a separate post about him and the very kind Mel Johnson from SERV Kent who made it happen.

The next stage is coding the interviews, a long, laborious yet necessary part of the process. Each transcript is loaded into a software package that allows sections of the text to be highlighted according to certain themes that arose in a discussion. If someone talks about having coming off a bike, that gets highlighted according to themes of accidents. If they talk about their parents being worried about them coming off a bike because they were riding recklessly, that might be coded with themes of family, safety concerns, attitudes to danger and so on. The process is a lengthy one that involves detailed analysis but will let me run some very clever reports: responses to questions on certain subjects, how multiple themes are connected, and how individuals’ responses vary in each area. All a bit complex and not something I know a lot about but learning about these processes is part of the PhD study, and an important part of building the structure for the final thesis.

The most recent thing I’ve done is to give a short presentation about my research at the University. I’m a student at the London College of Fashion which is part of the University of the Arts London, and research degrees are the responsibility of a specific section of the latter organisation. Everyone doing a PhD has to attend mandatory events and present about their work at various stages through the course. These presentations are effectively marked and successful completion allows students to progress to the next stage of the research degree through a process called Confirmation. College and University staff confirm that a student’s research project is progressing satisfactorily and they can continue to the final write-up. The presentation is followed by a big chunk of written work and an interview process. I’m hoping to go through those stages in around 3-4 months, then spend the next year writing 80,000 words. They don’t just give these qualifications away you know… (although if you’re a certain TV presenter there may be easier ways to get a PhD, but I don’t recommend them). I enjoyed the questions I was asked yesterday; they’re always interesting and thought provoking. I showed a short video by Belstaff that features David Beckham and was asked by a fellow student how the video related to my subject. I’d missed something simple and obvious, an easy thing to do when deeply involved with a subject, which was explaining that whilst Belstaff is seen nowadays as a high end fashion brand owned by an Italian luxury brands conglomerate, its origins are in highly functional “waterproof” waxed cotton clothing for adventurous outdoor pursuits and motorcycling. Waxed cotton popularity in the post-War period continued until more technical fabrics started to be developed and become affordable – GoreTex being a wonderful, more recent example that has transformed motorcycling. I’ve already written about how much I like my tailored, imitation “Belstaff-style” Claymore jacket and I’m wearing it almost daily at the moment.

So the next few months are to be spent with two objectives in mind: finding somewhere to live so that my in-laws, with whom we’re staying temporarily, don’t end up hating us, and getting some serious reading and writing done for the next stage of the PhD.

We aren’t yet entirely sure to where we’re moving, though we do have some interesting ideas. My wife and I decided over a year ago that we needed a little more excitement in our lives than rural Kent could offer, but didn’t fancy going back to living in the centre of another British city. Been there, bought the tshirt, cleaned the faeces off the front door etc etc. City centre living in the UK is certainly not for the faint hearted given that’s where one finds the more extreme ends of the drinking culture that exists here: fine to dip into it when you feel that way inclined but hell to live amongst it. We both have fairly mobile businesses that can function independently of location so, providing we can make the odd trip back to the UK every few weeks / months, we’re good to go anywhere that’s a reasonable journey time from our previous base in SE England. And our definition of reasonable is a dozen hours on a plane, so that gives us a lot of options. No decisions have been made as yet, and whilst we’ve some ideas about where we’d like to go, the how part is still in progress.

Any UK readers will know how crap the weather has been here recently Unfortunately all my cold weather motorcycle gear has gone into storage, so it’s a few weeks since a I last rode a bike. Admittedly this is a minor personal problem when compared to the fact that gale force wind and torrential rain has put large parts of the southern half of England underwater. Let’s hope things improve soon and that those affected are keeping safe.


KTM Revives the Rocker

I’ve always had a soft spot for KTM. They make bikes that are loud, lary and often BRIGHT ORANGE with weird and wonderful angular lines quite unlike other bikes. They’re also not scared of playing with the idea of motorcyclists being rebellious outsiders and have been putting together well filmed ads for their products that show pro riders essentially messing about on their machines and riding well beyond the usual rider’s limits.

One reason why they might have done this is because they don’t have the same presence in the MotoGP and WSB race classes. Win on Sunday Sell on Monday was the old mantra, and it clearly still works. What do you do if you’re expanding a range of fired-up street bikes but your brand isn’t a short circuit or TT winner, or is better known for its enduro bikes? You go back to the 1960s, when motorcyclists were perceived as everything that was wrong with the world, and you update the Folk Devil for 2013. Add in some moral panic from the Police and an MP and you have the perfect ingredients for a cult following. Interestingly, BSA did some market research in the 1960s that concluded that associations with “the Rocker element should be avoided at all cost.” I’ve always thought that a bit of a shame, as BSA soon disappeared as the British motorcycle industry died and the Rockers are still doing their thing, devoted to the British manufacturers of the 1960s.

Clearly this sort of stuff will never make it onto prime time TV so it must be made to go viral among fans of the brand. That keeps it internal and focused on potential buyers, but what’s interesting is how things change when this happens, and the films reach a wider audience. The internal starts to cross the boundary of the motorcycle culture and is seen outside the usual audience. To the untrained eye, burning out tyres, drifting the back end around and sticking one wheel or the other up in the air may seem normal, the sort of reckless dicking about that “bikers” are prone to.

I posted it up on Facebook earlier today and it got two comments: one from my non-riding brother suggesting the bike came with a free coffin, the other from my wife who commented on the colour of the bike. She desperately wants to find the time to learn to ride but needs to probably finish her PhD first. The first bike she sat on was a KTM and I like to think she might own one some day. That way I can have a go on it…

So here it is. I love it. Long may the motorcyclist be portrayed, by one contemporary manufacturer at least, as a folk devil capable of catalysing a moral panic for our time. Enjoy it, I think the Rockers will.


And if you want to know what happens next, watch this….

Old Gear / New Gear and getting it right

One of the things that came up in the recent BBC Timeshift documentary was the similarity of ‘The Black Leather Jacket’ to military clothing of the second world war. The silhouette, cut and fit of the Ton Up Boy’ favourite is identical to the jackets worn by German tank crews, albeit the military garment wasn’t always black, nor was it made of leather.

Forsten, D & Marrion, R. (1971) p72b

Put aside for a moment the fact that these dashing young chaps were intent on blowing up Tommy and have a look at what they’re wearing. The illustrations below show the garment a little more clearly.

Fosten, D & Marrion, R. (1971) p72a

Below is the typical Lewis Leathers jacket of the period. Similar, don’t you think?

LL Bronx The Motor Cycle 20 November 1958 p23

I’ve been thinking about the way the clothing of the period changed over time, not least due to the change from buttons to zips. I’ll post on that specific change another time but I wanted to post about the way garments evolve and the companies reproducing designs today from various periods in motorcycle history.

One thing I look at is the way motorcycle clothing develops before and after the war. In 1938 a chap called Alex Henshaw won the King’s Cup air race wearing a Lewis Leathers jacket. It was a close fitting jacket with a side zip and a D-shaped pocket (click here for an image on the Lewis website).

At the same time, motorcycle racers were also wearing rather larger double breasted leather jackets which buttoned to one side. Lewis do a great job of reproducing older designs from past catalogues and the Universal Racer Mk 1 is a great example.

LL Universal Racer

I can just imagine Bill Lacey (below) putting one on to blast round Brooklands in the 1930s. Coincidentally Lacey later worked with another racing great, Mike Hailwood, helping prepare his racing bikes.

Belton (2007) p187 Lacey 1927

(Image taken from Gerry Belton’s excellent book All The Years at Brooklands, a review of which can be found here)

Lewis Leathers also offer a made to measure service. I’m not sure if they publicise it but I know Derek has offered it to me in the past. They will make any of their designs to the exact measurements of the buyer and give you a jacket that fits perfectly and is faithful to the original designs. I’ve been to the shop a few times and seen the staff cutting patterns and measuring customers and they are very thorough and do a proper job. Their jackets are about 700 quid and worth every penny.

The other day I was having lunch in The Huntsman at Eridge, a local pub for me and one that has its own motorcycle club (Tuesday nights in case you fancy dropping in, the food is excellent and well worth the visit alone). The club has its own noticeboard and on it was a card for Gez Cater.

Check out this jacket he makes! Just beautiful. It’s a faithful reproduction of a Post Office garment and is made to measure for the buyer. At around £1000 ($1600 at the time of writing) it isn’t cheap but just look at it! It’s a wonderful thing and I love the way it’s put together using 1920s equipment by someone who clearly takes pride in producing a quality garment.

Gez Cater Jacket

If the options above are a bit pricey then there is another option, and this is the one I’ve gone for. Claymore Jackets do a reproduction of the 1960s style wax jackets made by Belstaff and Barbour.

At the time of writing the Claymore site was infected with malware and unsafe to view, so I can’t link to it in this post. Anyone familiar with the 60s Trialmaster jackets will recognise the design as they’re very similar. This is pretty much the one I have, it cost me £248 in 2011 and came with Knox armour on the elbows and shoulders and has a back protector.


Carl who works at Claymore turns the jackets round really quickly and was very efficient at replacing a zip when I had a problem with it a few days after receipt. He gets buyers to take some simple measurements and the fit is perfect. You can choose to have extra pockets and different linings to personalise the design. The jacket is tough, waterproof and fits perfectly. It’s made with Millerain waxed cotton which acquires a lovely patina after a bit of use and moulds beautifully to the body. I wear mine all the time both on and off the bike (friends will confirm this!) though I have to admit that the back protector made it look a bit weird, so that got binned fairly swiftly and I use a slimmer Dainese spine protector under a jumper instead when I’m riding.

It’s rare to buy garments made to our own specific measurements that use British materials and are constructed by a skilled person to whom we can speak to explain what we want out of a piece of clothing. It’s a real sweetener when the price for such a garment is lower than the off-the-shelf Belstaff equivalent made to standard sizes and hung on a rail in a fancy retail store. Cost is a major factor in the purchase of any kind of garment, but if you can stretch to any of the jackets in this post, I suggest that you make that investment. You’ll look far better (clothing that fits the wearer is so bloody rare to see nowadays that this is a nice inevitable consequence of getting stuff made to your own shape), and you’ll feel more comfortable. And best of all, any one of them will, to quote a tailor friend of mine, “outlast you”.

A bit more shameless self promotion


A little while ago I was asked to contribute to a BBC4 Timeshift documentary about motorcycles. It was a really enjoyable experience; my wife does lots of media work and is forever appearing in the press or on radio and TV but this was entirely new for me. The photo above is me at London’s Ace Cafe – I don’t know if I made it through the edit yet but it promises to be a great piece. Also interviewed was Mark Wilsmore the person responsible for the reopening of the cafe. Lovely chap and purveyor of London’s best bacon buttie and a lovely cup of tea. Len Paterson is also featured; Len has always been very helpful and supportive of my research and is a familiar face at bike events in and around London and has organised some himself, particularly the tribute to Father Graham Hullett of the 59 Club..

The programme is airing on Monday at 21:00 on BBC4 in the UK. Here’s the blurb from the BBC website:

Timeshift returns with an exploration of the British love of fast, daring and sometimes reckless motorbike riding during a period when home-grown machines were the envy of the world. From TE Lawrence in the 1920s, to the ‘ton up boys’ and rockers of the 1950s, motorbikes represented unparalleled style and excitement, as British riders indulged their passion for brands like Brough Superior, Norton and Triumph.

But it wasn’t all thrills and spills – the motorbike played a key role during World War II and it was army surplus bikes that introduced many to the joy and freedom of motorcycling in the 50s, a period now regarded as a golden age. With its obsession with speed and the rocker lifestyle, it attracted more than its fair share of social disapproval and conflict. Narrated by John Hannah.

John Hannah no less! Stop all the clocks…. Anyone who can knock out WH Auden that well and get stuck into a motorcycle documentary is alright by me. I wonder if he rides?


San Diego Lowrider documentary film


I’ve just returned from a month in California – I was lucky enough to be working there for 4 weeks and travelled with my wife Anna. We have jobs that allow us to work remotely and stayed in a lovely guesthouse in Pasadena, CA.  We met some very nice people and got to play at living in a foreign city for a while, which was lots of fun.

Wherever we go I always try to check out the local car and bike scenes and we have friends in Los Angeles that are involved in the lowrider culture of Southern California. One project that recently caught my eye is that headed up by Alberto Pulido of the University of San Diego: Everything Comes From The Streets.

Rigo Reyes, Alberto Pulido, Kelly Whalen

This is a social history project about the lowrider culture in San Diego and the political struggles that the Chicano and Mexican communities faced in establishing and maintaining their own cultural identity. The lowrider scene provided the means for a subjugated community to define itself in opposition to the dominant white establishment. A subculture developed as one method of resistance to the racial heirarchy in 1950s and 1960s American society.

Pulido’s work echoes many of my own interests and beliefs: that the history of a subculture lies “in the streets”, with rich memories and knowledge in communities that deserve to be documented and recorded. Swap lowriders for motorcycles, Chicano Park for British seaside resorts or the expanding road network of London and other British cities in the mid 1960s and you have some interesting comparisons between San Diego and the British Ton-Up and Rocker subcultures of the same period. Clothing was used to show allegiance or membership of a certain group within a mobility practice and participants struggled to establish their own identity in the face of opposition from dominant groups. In the UK the struggle was one framed in the context of the democratisation of transport among young working class people living in urban centres; in San Diego it was the Chicano / Mexican community campaigning for representation and recognition in a racist society. The moral panics seen in the British press of the 1960s Mods/Rockers clashes bear many similarities to those seen in the Southwest US in the 1970s. Both cultures took great pride in the modification of standard machines and the wearing of specific garments to establish themselves as outside dominant cultures, and in the process found themselves the focus of attention for law enforcement officers and newspaper journalists. Watch the video for some great period footage and more info on the project:

Alberto Pulido’s project is an extremely important contribution; I’ve spoken to Mexican friends in the lowrider scene in the Los Angeles area and they’re really interested in watching the film when it comes out. The struggles that led to the creation of Chicano Park still resonate far and wide in their community and this film is a great way to celebrate the culture. I wish them every success and hope it gets a screening in London soon.

Why We Ride

I recently came across this trailer for a film about motorcycling and thought it worth sharing:

It seems to be made in the US and features a broad range of riders, bikes and riding. Three people stand out for me:

The woman in the Motor Maids t-shirt at 01:27. More info on them can be found here. I wonder if they are associated with WIMA in any way?

Ted Simon (pictured at the top of this post) is in there at 01:46 — I recommend his books about his own travels by bike if you haven’t read them, especially since he was an inspiration for the Long Way Round / Down etc travels that Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman undertook a few years back. Also he has his Foundation which is a source of inspiration for motorcycle travellers.  Not so long back he visited my home town of Tunbridge Wells and was wheelclamped. Shame, because I usually manage to get away with leaving my bike in all sorts of weird and wonderful places and as far as I can tell the town is reasonably motorbike-friendly.  Free parking in all the car parks, and a good number of SERV Kent volunteers live there too.

Simon lives in California now, which is coincidentally where I’m writing this post — though I’m in So Cal and Simon is based up north, past San Francisco. I’m in an area that enjoys 329 days of sunshine a year. Any Brits ever feel like we have 329 days of rain a year?

It’s also home to some fantastic riding: how about Route 2, the Angeles Crest Highway, over the San Gabriel mountains, or the Kanan Dume Road from the 101 at Agoura down to Malibu, or The Green Valley Road from Paso Robles to Cambria through a stunning wine region? All routes that are right up there with the best of them, and all in locations where the lack of traffic, warm weather, sunshine and good road surfaces all add up to fantastic riding.  British riders will feel right at home on the twisty stuff and outpace most of the locals. Just watch out for the cops around Malibu as they’re supposedly a bit harsh on speeding. And I’ve been warned that helicopters are frequently dispatched to clean up the remains of riders who fall off the Crest. Paso is so hot that you’ll want to take it nice and easy and enjoy the view, especially if you’ve sampled the local produce the night before…

And the third person? I’ve got to admit that the kid talking at 02:00 freaks me out a bit. Who the hell thinks about having children at that age? Weird….. Maybe he needs to ride more.