Prince of the Road

In March 1962 I bought my first wheels – all two of them on an olive-green, Vespa Sportique. My 18-year-old’s diary records: ‘Lovely and perfect, until I come to ride it. It behaves like  a horse.’; a few days later: ‘This evening after going two or three hundred yards on the scooter, I have decided to take the plunge tomorrow and drive to work. Please don’t let it rain, God!’ And a day later, ‘changing down was much improved, but slowing down a little laborious, and I am wary of descending hills at speed’ until my near-death on 26 March, when: I ‘came out at Wootton onto the main road without stopping’. But, resplendent in a white-peaked crash helmet, astride 149 c.c. of power, I was a prince of the road, although my son reckons I must have looked like a nerd.

Despite the fact that I never got out of L-plates, having failed my driving test, that did not stop me once riding 920 miles to Edinburgh and back, still one of the most exciting things I have done, confirming me to the pleasure of travelling alone.

On the summer’s dawn of the morning of departure, I saw my scooter slung like a horse, hoist by crane from the quay on to the deck of the Ryde/Portsmouth ferry. I went via my grandmother in Bury and can see her looking out of the window as I drove up. Uncle Jack, recently back from  national service in Malaya, got drunk (a frequent condition) and tried to get into the house, rattling the door, but she kept it locked, much to his loud-mouthed dismay. Going over Shap Fell on the A6 was so cold and wet that I sidetracked over to Penrith where I downed a glass of barely age-permissible whisky in a posh hotel bar.

A hundred and twenty miles and three hours later on Princes Street in the Scottish capital, I was pulled over and rebuked by a traffic policeman for not obeying his hand signals – well I was only a learner. I got a broom cupboard of a room in a hotel and spent a couple of days with two Boroughmuir School friends.

On the way back, at Scotch Corner I stopped in a lorry-drivers’ motel paying half a crown to attempt sleep in a huge dormitory with men coming and going all night. One of them advised me to put my shoes under the iron bed’s legs to avoid their being nicked when asleep (my shoes, not the legs). Then off again next day, only to come off the scooter near Oxford; not leaving enough space in front, I braked sharply to avoid careering into a car and catapulted over the handlebars, but the borrowed WWII RAF flak jacket and slow speed saved me from serious injury. Then on back on to the Island.

For all those glorious miles, unlike me, the Sportique had never missed a beat and used petrol like a miser. I loved it, my first tame combustion engine. But not enough love to prevent me selling it in November of the same year, when I joined the army. Nevertheless, the memory of my first exhilarating solo adventure has stayed. Nerd I felt not, my dear boy.

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