ADVENTURES IN MOTORCYCLING
What do you remember about the 80s? Thatcher and Reagan's nuclear embrace? Multi-city riots? The Falklands War? The Miners' strike? IRA hunger strikes? Unemployment at three million? Privatisation? The Smiths? The Clash? Talking Heads? The list goes on, but there was a motorcycling phenomenon too: despatch riding. A frenzied dash for cash in the 'loadsamoney' era. Thrills, lots of spills, pills, dope and alcohol.
The era is remembered and captured in the book 'Adventures in Motorcycling: Despatching through 80s London' by Chris Scott, who was, to borrow a phrase from the brilliant TV series, in 'the thick of it'.
Scott is known these days as one of the progenitors of adventure biking. The real thing, not just having a bike model that the manufacturer has labelled 'adventure'. After a couple of early, but not always positive, bike expeditions across the Sahara desert, he began to get it right and captured it in a seminal work: 'Desert Travels'. He then went on to write 'Adventure Motorcycling Handbook', Sahara Overland', and 'Overlanders' Handbook'. He still leads tours in the desert by motorcycle, 4X4, and camel.
'A tasty menu of biking fare from the decade'
This latest book - awarded the accolade 'Book of the Year' by Ride magazine - recounts his motorcycling youth and graduation to the frantic streets of London via various courier companies, on board the most diverse range of bikes you'll likely come across. Forty-three different makes and models by the end of the story. Chris Scott is either an assiduous recorder of his bike ownership or has brilliant recall, because he serves up a tasty menu of biking fare from the decade, which will bring a tear to the nostalgic eye of motorcyclists and those who dabbled in the 'courier trade'.
I was one of those dabblers. Like Chris Scott, I wanted to accumulate some dosh to go travelling and signed on for a stint with a couple of companies. My brother and some of his mates worked for the famous Mercury Despatch, whose orange-liveried fleet were a feature of London's streets for a good few years. Some of the more outrageous and lurid escapades Scott recounts could be confirmed by the Mercury "boys" and others, but he considered those companies which insisted its riders wore a company identity to be at the more conventional end of the courier game.
Courier companies came in all shapes and sizes. This was a time in London of rampant entrepreneurialism, or chancers, however you view it. Scott gained despatching experience with some of the chancers, but one of the advantageous aspects for riders was being able to switch employers almost at will if they weren't getting enough work or if the conditions were not to their liking.
'Conjures up the anarchic and non-conventional lifestyle...of despatching and motorcycling'
Chris Scott can write, and he conjures up the anarchic and non-conventional lifestyle not only of despatching and motorcycling, but squatting, drug taking and experimentation, music, and flirting with the anti-establishment politics of the time with Class War. He also reminds us, in vivid prose, of the Japanese 'invasion'. New models streaming onto the market, and at a time when bike sales reached a peak, before the first licence and power restrictions curbed our enthusiasm.
Because London was the centre - or even maelstrom - of the courier business, the book is very London-centred, describing streets, squatting locations, courier routes, areas and traffic incidents, crashes and near misses etc. For readers familiar with this time and geography, an immediate rapport and recognition will come to mind. Others may struggle with this aspect, but there is enough extensive motorcycling information and descriptive flair to capture and keep a reader's attention and imagination flowing through the pages.
It couldn't last. It didn't last. The phrase "I'll bike it over" became rarely used as electronic delivery - Tim Berners-Lee developed the internet in the 80s, taking away more and more of the despatchers' work. Why use a strangely attired pirate on a motorbike when the press of a few keys could send your artwork, typesetting galleys, documents, photos across the ether? Courier companies amalgamated or went out of business. You could spend a day in London now and possibly not see a motorcycle courier. Their place has now been taken by small-capacity pizza and fast food delivery bikes. Do they have as much fun?
Chris Scott is still leading desert expeditions, though the scope for this has narrowed because of the social and political upheavals in North Africa. Check out all his books and biography at www.sahara-overland.com.
You can buy this book direct through his other website www.adventuresinmotorcycling.com for £8.99 (postage free) or via Amazon (the company that loves to pay no tax). Chris has also included a gallery of pictures from the era, and we have used a few to illustrate this review.
Have you read any great motorcycling books? Tell us which ones and what you thought about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
01/02/16 Ha. I rode for Mercury in the early 1980s. It was hilarious. I used to submit test bikes for Superbike to the Ordeal by Mercury
01/02/16 Done 35 years despatch riding, Bloody week of punctures after nail bombs at Hide Park corner, You certainly see and meet all sorts of people at work, going to Edinburgh on a GN400 Suzuki single not the best idea but loved the job and do miss it .
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