To complete my story of my friendship with John Berger, I thought I would post this other story. I wrote it, I see, 20 years ago on the 4th of November 1996 on a day when I had just been riding with him. I wrote it because I felt the need to write about the experience; there wasn’t any other good reason to do so. I didn’t know what to do with it, although I did send it to John. Otherwise, it has just sat on my computer for 20 years along with a few other things. There were no blogs then. Now seems like a good time to dig it out, perhaps the only time.
I fell off my bike again today. I fell off on a dangerous bend. That’s not a mitigation, it’s actually a condemnation. Quite apart from it proving to be a dangerous bend in that my failure to negotiate it resulted in my falling off, it had a sign marked ²Dangerous Bend² stuck up before it. I can’t say I wasn’t warned. But then motorcycling is all about ignoring perfectly sound advice. This starts before you even buy a bike. Umpteen people advise you not to. But you ignore them. They then try to discourage you from using it: "Aren’t you getting a bit old for this sort of thing?" No. "You will drive carefully, won’t you?" Yes, of course. Once you hit the road you are constantly advised on how to behave by a litany of thoughtfully placed road signs imposing speed limits, warning of corners, road works, villages, places not to overtake, humpbacked bridges, wild animals, low-flying aircraft, frogs, even. Clearly, these things all have to be taken into account - before you make your decision as to what extent you are going to ignore them. Motorway intersections signposted at 80 km/h are great fun and seem perfectly safe at about 140. Sections of mountain road limited to 60 km/h come alive if you accelerate to 160 between the bends. Double white lines before blind bends may make sense if you are in a wheezing, old 2CV, but on a bike you have aeons of time in which to make your manoeuvre before slamming on the brakes for the corner. It’s all a question of degree. Motoring, then, once it transcends creeping about from A to B, presupposes a certain amount of arrogance. You choose not to do what you are being told to because you think you know better.
The police take a dim view of this attitude, but that’s only normal. They are paid to perpetuate the myth that most people abide by the rules. The myth is necessary to ensure that driving in Geneva is a safer experience than driving in Cairo. In any case, it’s easy for the police. For a start, they’re not driving around for fun, so it doesn’t much matter if they’re not having any. Secondly, they don’t have anywhere to go, so it’s fairly irrelevant how long it takes them to get there. Thirdly, if they have some pressing need to be somewhere fast, they start flashing blue lights and promptly ignore all that sound advice...
So what makes a corner dangerous? Would it be dangerous if you walked around it? Obviously not. Is it dangerous because it’s sharp? Not necessarily. If that were the case, I’d fall off every time I tackled a mountain road with switchback hairpins. No, a corner becomes dangerous when it lulls you into a false sense of security, when it appears to be that which it is not, when it’s out of synch with what you reasonably could have expected, bearing in mind the last half-dozen corners. It could be argued that instead of trying to second-guess the road sign and ask oneself "In what way is this corner going to be unlike its brethren?", it would be handier if the sign let the cat out of the bag and told you what was so special about it, viz. : " Corner Tightens Up Savagely " or " Gravel Everywhere ". In the Isle of Man, they have a sign with a Blind Pew-like black spot in the middle of the warning triangle. Whilst being no more explicit, the meaning is obvious and immediate: accident black spot - a lot of people have regretted the levity of their decision at this point. This is a sign which definitely slows you down.
It’s a warm-for-November, Sunday afternoon. We’ve just had a good lunch. John is riding behind me. He is a prudent motorcyclist. Not slow, but careful. Following him earlier, I have noticed that he could lean over further in the corners. Leaning is the very essence of biking for me. Straight-line acceleration is fun, but the real thrill comes from that equilibrium of forces which keeps you suspended in mid-air as you corner. The further over you lean, the more intoxicating the feeling. To lean over far, you have to ride fast; it’s nothing to do with being in a hurry. I want John to see that his machine will allow him that swooping, pendulum flow when you loop together one corner after the next on a thread of acceleration. I don’t want to impress him, just impress upon him.
An empty country road. It’s damp beneath the trees in places, but so long as you know that and allow for it, there’s no real problem. I approach a bend. " Virage dangereux ". So what. It doesn’t look that " dangereux " to me, just another 90°, a corner like so many others. The chevrons mounted on a sign before it don’t look particularly forbidding either; it’s nothing the Ducati won’t handle. I brake sharply and tip the bike in. From my new vantage point, I see that instead of 90°, it’s more like 140° and I’ll have to scrub off more speed or I won’t make it round. I’m braking with the back and the wheel is locking up, the bike snaking around its axis. I lift it up and hit the front brakes for a split second before hopefully laying it down again. But the front wheel locks on the gravel at the edge of the road and the bike heads straight for the verge. I’m off. I’ve just run out of road.
I’m back on my feet instinctively, I don’t even remember being on the ground - impossible to say which part of me hit it. The Ducati is lying on its side with its front wheel under a wooden fence, in the mud. John arrives and parks up, concerned. "Are you all right?" I’m fine, physically. I’ve got some species of bruise on my left knee, but my heavyweight leathers have kept everything intact - my portable health insurance. All I feel is a sense of shame and regret. The Ducati looks like a stricken animal there on its side. No, not even that - a carcass. Its bellow has been silenced. Smashed bits of plastic are lying in the road. Offal. A motorist stops and we drag its dead weight from under the fence and heave it upright. Shall we lean it up against the fence on its other side? It’ll probably scratch the paint, but does it matter? Nothing much seems to matter now. A scratch more or less - who gives a toss? It's impossible to know what motorists think on such occasions. Is it genuine concern they feel at the proximity of a possible death? Just good neighbourliness, perhaps. Or is it a secret vindication? Watching wistfully from their metal enclosures as the helmeted, leather-clad, latter-day knights flash by in a blur of noise, they are reduced to the roles of mere serfs, suffering humanity whilst the motard cuts a swathe through it and rushes on towards the horizon. Don't they feel somehow diminished, aware of their powerlessness? And now the tables are turned, the biker confounded in his arrogance, powerless to redress his bike like an unhorsed jouster in the dirt. They were right - it will only end in tears.
For aside from the sheer fun-fair pleasure of motorcycling, it’s a myth we’re living out. We encase ourselves in armour, we dehumanise ourselves in our helmets, invisible behind smoked visors. We wield the force of heroes, one-hundred horsepower in our grasp. We attain a mythological stature, flirting with death. In all our gear, we are no longer people at all. Why don’t bikers wave at scooterists? Because they are still human in their city clothes on their anaemic, little machines. They are borne on the tide of humanity instead if cutting themselves off from it. Is this why motorcycling is seen as a lower-class pastime, the disenfranchised attaining an animal power which unsettles those who are only cloaked in their money? This is why falling off is the ultimate sin. It’s the shattering of the illusion, the nemesis of arrogance, the reduction of the biker to mere mortal status, the stripping away of that magical power. That’s why I feel such a prat.
" Don’t worry ", says John. "It could have happened to anyone." These are kind, comforting words. But I have betrayed us. It’s not the stricken bike that worries me. Closer analysis will reveal the damage, such as it is, to be purely superficial and nothing that a few francs and the lavish attention of "Bernard le Costard" won’t be able to sort out. It’s certainly not the minuscule, physical hurt of a couple of bruises - squash as per usual next Thursday. The sadness comes from having your bluff called and revealing that your hand contains nothing but a meaningless series of disconnected cards. Coming back to earth with a crash, I am so patently not what I was pretending to be.
With Stalinesque thoroughness, I will repair the illusion. History will be rewritten. The event will only be revealed in future times when it will be nothing more than a heroic scuff on the leathers, accrued to the bravado of biking like a notch on a stick. The bike has been stashed in the garage, the mud surreptitiously removed from my gloves and leathers. At some future date the Ducati will be spirited away, incognito, from under its tarpaulin to Bernard’s elfish workshop to be restored to pristine condition. I’ve done all this before.
You learn from your mistakes, apparently. You can also learn from other people's. Maybe John will get more out of this than me. Ironically, I have set a wonderful example. Now he knows not to go rushing into corners as I like to - he probably got all that out of his system years ago, anyway. I haven't. I'm going to have more crashes in the future, no doubt. Why stop now? But don't get me wrong, I only make a very infrequent habit of this, like a man who allows himself a cigar once every couple of years. The rest of the time, amazingly, the bike always returns to the vertical after my forays into the horizontal. In some of the circles whose outer edges I frequent I am tacitly viewed as someone who is just too reasonable to ever be a good motard. In these circles, good means fast and fast probably means unconscious. I was at a race-track once with Bernard. "Have you got fully comp insurance?" he asked me. Yes. "Then what are you afraid of falling off for?" He didn't offer this aggressively, as a challenge, but with genuine incomprehension. Bernard is fast. Insurance assessors don't frighten him, nor do hospitals. He had pins put in some part of his anatomy on some occasion. But I look at it this way: you look a bigger fool with a drip in your arm than you do being stuffed up the inside by two-wheeled madmen. You have to know when throw in your hand if the stakes get too high.
It's all just a question of degree.