My First TT
The King Orry docked at dawn and I wasn’t allowed to go to the boarding house, on pain of death, before 8am so I sat on the wall at Douglas Promenade and let this new world wash over me.
I smelled the sea air and the Castrol “R” from the “Ton Up Boys” who ran their sports bikes on this exotic lubricant. I listened to the calls of the seagulls and the crackle and boom of barely silenced BSA Gold Stars as they headed out for a lap of the TT circuit. I felt the rough stone cutting in to me as I sat on the sea wall and I tasted the sweet salt of the sea mist – and I felt alive, in a way I never was in Warrington.
It was very much like leaving a dense forest and entering a new world and, like some human sponge, I sat and I looked and I listened and I soaked up everything.
Welcome to Stalag Douglas
The Camp Commandant, who owned the establishment, greeted me at the door with a pair of cold, narrow eyes which had been machined from two blocks of case hardened steel.
Interestingly, she was dressed entirely in a range of industrial greys.
Her skirt was an interesting mix of light grey, mid grey, dark grey and black tweed and what had once been a white blouse was now another shade of grey – probably in an attempt to show solidarity with the rest of the ensemble.
She wore a grey cardigan which carried the only touch of lightness in her whole outfit: a piece of worn, black jet formed into a flower.
The Commandant’s skin was a lighter shade of grey than either her blouse or her cardigan and, to be fair, her teeth were hardly grey at all – they were a rather threatening arc of brown tints.
At the very top was a bundle of grey hair, tied back into a tight bun.
Liverpool and London might have been swinging to the rock ‘n’ roll beat of the sixties but hotel trade in the Isle of Man certainly wasn’t!
You Want Breakfast???
We descended the near vertical stairs and, using my most obsequious voice, I asked if it was okay to have breakfast now. The scene which followed was straight from Oliver Twist. “Breakfast? B-r-e-a-k-f-a-s-t? B-R-E-A-K-F-A-S-T?” The volume increased with each repetition of the word.
Did I realise that it was only as a token of respect for my Mum that I was even allowed to enter her boarding house before mid-day and now I wanted breakfast as well?
Didn’t I realise that B-E-D and B-R-E-A-K-F-A-ST mean that breakfast followed bed?
The first breakfast to which I was entitled came the following morning and I should be ashamed of my weak and cruel attempts to exploit a kind, gentle lady who was providing me with such lovely accommodation.
Every eye in the tiny dining room turned on me and if I had been cast into a fiery lake of molten lava, managed by devils with pitchforks, it would have been a good swap. I turned from deep red to some teenage shade of purple and visibly shrunk in size.
My Very Own Bouncing Bomb:
A combination of my highly illegal speed – a good 20mph above the limit for a built up area – and a badly fitted manhole cover, caused the Matchless to jump slightly. When I landed, it was with some surprise that I saw I had now been joined by what looked awfully like a 21” front wheel, complete with scrambles tyre.
The wheel, being a friendly sort, hovered alongside me for a moment before accelerating away whilst I mused that it looked identical to the wheel I was carrying on the bike, “was” being the operative word.
The wheel bowled away purposefully whilst I set off in pursuit, the Dam Buster’s “Bouncing Bomb” signature tune ringing in my ears.
Unfortunately, heading towards me was a Vauxhall Cresta. This car was a dreadful parody of the ‘50s Chevrolets. It had vestigial fins on the back and was constructed from tracing paper thin, mild steel sheet. The wheel knew this as well as I did, and locked on to its target with ruthless efficiency.
The impact was impressive. Since Fred had put about 40 psi in the tyre to blow the bead out, it had an excellent profile for maximum penetration and it cut through the rusted bumper with ease, finally lodging itself up against the radiator.
On Being Blessed:
I got chatting to a Catholic priest who came on to the outer deck to see the last fragments of the sunset. At the time, I was quite a devout Anglican and had read, and was reading, the Bible extensively.
We gossiped about a range of topics, religious and secular, and he found out that I had nowhere to sleep and, strawberries apart, hadn’t eaten. He smiled and nodded knowingly, then blessed me before he left – which was very nice of him.
The following morning, by a sheer fluke, I happened to see him leave his four bed cabin – three beds in which had been unoccupied. The blessing was a very good thing to receive – but a bed would have been even better!
Knowing My Place in the World:
The highlight of the trip home was a pretty girl from Manchester. Our initial meeting was fairly dramatic in that she nearly tripped over me in the lounge as I settled down on the floor for the night but, the following morning, we were starting to become friendly as the English coastline appeared on the horizon. Any hopes of future progress were well and truly brought to a halt when her Dad appeared.
She was pretty, smartly dressed and well spoken. By contrast I failed on all three counts and, in those days, Dads didn’t take any nonsense. She was ushered away, her Dad gave me a look which would have drilled holes in titanium and I was reminded of my place in the world and what would happen if I tried to exceed it.
Serving Time in Jail:
It is difficult to articulate just how much I hated this job.
I loathed catching the Manchester train from Warrington’s Central Station. I choked on the caged smells of the wage slaves, locked in the carriages on the way to their empty lives and I felt like an animal trapped in an office where everything, from the number of times workers used the toilets to the precise length of tea-break, was noted, monitored and controlled.
The Mating Ritual:
There were three problems. First, I was achingly, deep purple blushingly shy in the company of girls. The second thing was that I re-defined boy/girl ineptitude. Finally, I had something less than zero social skills.
Here’s an example of a typical chat up line which I would deliver at supersonic speed – and in one breath:
At best, the poor young ladies looked utterly confused – not to say bemused!
But I didn’t want to have sex with “S”. I wanted to hold her hand and to meet after work and for her to ask me if it had been a good day.
I wanted to stroke her hair and tell her that she was lovely.
I wanted to walk with her round a race circuit and for her to be excited about racing.
I wanted her to be my special friend and for me to feel proud when I walked alongside her.
That’s what I really wanted. Sex was not even on the wish list!
We drove back in silence and exchanged the briefest of goodbyes outside her house.
Becoming a Professional Racer:
The wait was interminable and I felt a burning desire to visit the toilet. How bad would this be? I was going to wet myself with fear waiting to collect my first ever prize money.
The Secretary looked up: “Yeah?”
Gulp. Swallow saliva in desert dry mouth. “Frank Melling. I finished fourth in the 500 final.”
Infinitely extended silence whilst he consults his results’ sheet.
Deafening silence. Has there been a mistake? Perhaps I wasn’t fourth. I must have been lapped and couldn’t remember. Maybe I had knocked a peg over and they’ve excluded me. I know, it’s all a dream and I’m still at Telephone House dialling out with a Post Office pen.
Oh God, please don’t let me die. Not now. Not here. Not with ten shillings prize money on offer. Please God.
He slides a small brown envelope to me. On it is scrawled “Melling 4/500” in blue biro. In the envelope is a crumpled, pink ten shilling note – 50p. I have won prize money. I am a professional rider. My life is complete.
Writing for My Life:
I was told to write why I wanted to be a teacher and why S.Katherine’s College of Education should accept me for teacher training. With that, the clerk left the room and the heavy, wooden door clicked purposefully closed behind him.
Outside, I heard a BSA twin being kicked into life. It coughed at first and then caught and ran sweetly on two cylinders. After a few moments, I heard the harsh click of first gear going into place and then the bike pulling away. Then there was silence – and I was left to my own fate.
The End of a Very Memorable Day:
My first day at S.Kaths finished on a really spectacular high. I went into the toilets, gave the roller towel machine a sharp tug to dry my hands and it crashed down on my ankles leaving me in a heap on the floor.
The only question was whether I was going to get thrown out of College for being stupid in a public place, wrecking their towel machine – or both.
Help From the Iron Promenade:
Three weeks passed. I had failed. The River Mersey was helpfully close, just a couple of miles from College. All that I had to do was find a suitable block of concrete and a piece of rope, wait until high tide and then chuck myself off the “Iron Promenade.”
On Being Paid to Write:
Eventually, a white envelope bearing an American stamp and an air mail sticker arrived. Yes, the piece was very good and they wanted to publish it. Would I accept $75?
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was going to be published. I sat and re-read the letter over and over again, letting the words wash over me like a warm shower after a winter ride. I had done it. No more notice board adverts and club magazine rejections: I was a professional writer.
On Becoming a VIP:
We purred through Birmingham with the chauffeur being the most impeccable example of a gentleman’s carriage driver:
“Did Sir have a good journey?”
“Was Sir familiar with BSA?”
“Was there anything Sir needed on the way to the factory?”
Bear in mind that, just the day before, “Sir” had been queuing up outside a history seminar room and getting ready for his second Teaching Practice.
Sex and Motorcycling:
One of the British Rail staff got out a Stanley Knife and we began carefully cutting the sides of the box away until, like some wonderful mythical creature breaking free from its egg, the most incredible motorcycle in the world appeared.
Even today I can remember my amazement that anyone could make a motorcycle this beautiful, for what Reg had delivered was not a standard B.50MX but the last works bike the factory ever produced.
Without a word of exaggeration, I wanted to get undressed and make love to the bike there and then on the platform – it was so beautiful.
The Show Must Go On:
The girls wanted more. This time was going to be the big one. 6,000rpm and bang in the clutch. The back wheel spun for 10 yards and then hooked up and we tore down the factory wall in the best possible style. 60mph was there in three seconds and then…
Well, the “then” was a pallet truck full of castings. The driver took one look at the speedway bike bearing down on him and abandoned ship. I shut off, leaned forward and applied both Hush Puppies. My legs buckled, bits of shoe flew everywhere but I just, and only just, stopped
The End of BSA:
I was shaking like a leaf and pulled up on Golden Hillock Road, just to calm down. I was panting for breath and flopped forward across the steering wheel completely exhausted.
I raised my head and looked out of the driver’s side car window and across towards Armoury Road. The suited gentlemen from Cooper Brothers Accountants were locking the gates to the factory and that was the end of BSA as a major manufacturer of motorcycles. The work force was slashed from 4,500 to just 1,500 and all production finally stopped on 14 April when just eleven Rocket 3s and seven B50SS Gold Stars were built.
My days as a BSA works rider were well and truly over!
Triumph Works Rider – For a Day:
I am doing a genuine 60mph and so this is going to hurt – and good style too. There’s only one solution. Lean back, pull hard on the ‘bars and the lovely Adventurer stands up on its back wheel and we smash into the gate with the front wheel over the top bar. This is good – very good – because underneath the engine is a big steel bash plate and this cuts through the gate like a knife through butter as I go sliding down the road. As I skid along on my back, I watch the gate slowly fold into two halves – and then collapse.
A Very Strange and Disturbing Experience:
I parked the bike outside and walked in, still inside the bubble of inexplicable cold. The camp is a mere shadow of its original self but I could still get an idea of the industrial scale of the organised, thorough, every day massacres which took place at Dachau.
Welcome to Sweden:
The DC4 slewed drunkenly all over the sky and the snow got ever heavier then, without any warning, came the black blur of a forest. I adopted the brace position – whilst the jolly Swede next to me kindly offered to help me find whatever I had dropped on the floor. After all, why else would I be in a ball, with my head between my knees?
Skiing With a Husky:
I dropped the bike in, leaned forward and put my right foot firmly on the ski. The springs allowed the ski to touch the snow, the back-end floated out and a really satisfying rooster tail sprayed snow over the great and good from the factory. This was easy – and fun.
A Very Near Death Experience:
On the basis of the conversation going on between the two medics in the ambulance, I was certain I was about to die but a clever surgeon in Accident and Emergency threaded a catheter into my lung and saved my life. I just got away with what was a very near miss in terms of fatal accidents but, even so, it wasn’t the most fun I had racing.
The Observer’s Book of Motorcycle Racing:
It’s a fascinating sight to see a rider cartwheel through the air in front of you but not nearly so interesting as observing a white fuel tank, gushing fuel, bounce down the track directly at your bike.
The tank is travelling at 60 mph up the beach and I am travelling at 60 mph down the beach. This is going to hurt. I tuck my left shoulder tight into the Kwack and petrol sprays from the Yam’s tank as it neatly pirouettes over my shoulder. It really was that close.
Did I Really Punt You Into the River?
I slid my machine up the inside of the bloke who had been delaying me and, as we reached the hairpin, I simply flicked the rear wheel out into a slide and punted him into the river.
To say the least, he wasn’t best pleased and the following lap, still festooned with river weed, he was waiting to kill me with a four foot (1.1m) long marker stake: that was a real encouragement for quick acceleration out of the hairpin bend!
Fortunately, he had calmed down by the end of the event and took what happened as a “racing incident” – which was just as well, because he was much bigger than me and I didn’t fancy having my face re-arranged by a 4” (100mm) wooden post!
Thanks for reading…