About markswill

For those unaware of my glittering career, I started scribbling for the underground press in 1968 and by complete chance was appointed Music Editor of International Times when I happened to visit their office for the first time in '69 on a day trip down from Birmingham. Naturally I took all of a stoned nanosecond to accept the offer... and it's all been uphill ever since. If you really give a stuff, a full resume of my, er, resume is available on the Career page of my website, www.markwilliamsmedia.co.uk, but for now just be content to know that I'm an opinionated media junkie of a certain age who won't sit still.


Bike – August 1975

Very much a period piece in its references to sports-mopeds, the ‘sixteener’ licensing regime, long-forgotten models such as the appalling Ariel (BSA) trike, local dealers’ spares counters and indeed disgraced US prez ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon, this was typical of my high-horse rants about the high-cost of our little game. But compared to what it costs nowadays to take up ‘biking and the complexities of getting licensed to do so, I can only weep with nostalgia… and note that it’s hardly surprising that there are so few young ‘uns joining the fray.

I am not a traditionalist. And I use that phrase in much the same way that Nixon (Richard, not Gary) exclaimed, “I am not a crook”, because I normally abhor sentimentality for its own sake. Which is no big deal, unless of course you happen to be a biker.

However there are certain things going down now that raddle me not insubstantially, and one of them is Yamaha FS1-Es. Have you noticed how many of these little blighters there are around these days? Well if your ultra-cool Peter Fonda shades prohibit you from seeing anything on the road except buses and Scania Super 110 artics, let me wise you up to the fact that the FS1-E is replacing the Bantam as the bolide you kick off your motorcycling career with.

On my regular trips to Wales I pass a technical college on the outskirts of a small market town. Each week it seems there’s another goddamn purple FSl-E in the cycle sheds. Thank heavens I never pass by when they’re all on their way home to their Findus fish fingers. Think I’d die of fright, all those purple lemmings buzzing after me in formation.

Now when a beaming David Startup – then head of Mitsui (the then UK Yamaha importers – MW) introduced me to this strange little moped with a gear lever, I gained the distinct impression that it was merely a rather droll joke. More fool me. In my pathetic ignorance I failed to realise that if sixteen-year-olds were going to be forced to ride mopeds, then suddenly the choice of a first bike became limited to a collection of invariably mundane pushbikes with lawnmower engines. That is until canny Mr. Startup (the man who sold BSA all those Anka engines for the Ariel trike – ho, ho, ho) brought in the multi-geared FSl-E.

Immediately the repressed teenager had either to opt for 3 Raleigh Wisp, Norman Nippy, Puch Maxi or something of that ilk . . . or he could go for a sleek, relatively fast machine that actually looked vaguely like a motorcycle. Now faced with the choice of a secondhand and probably very rusty, smokey toy and a brand new Yamaha for chrissakes, which would you choose? Well of course…

But such shameless logic meant also that instead of shelling out 25 quid for an old nail, you were suddenly into hire purchase, bribing parents and heavy duty insurance. In fact in his adolescent enthusiasm for the biking life (hah!), the feckless young punk was unwittingly snarfed up into big time commerce.

And that, gentle readers, is not what it’s all about.

When I was but a tot, I paid four-and-a-half real pound notes for my first bike, a D1 Bantam with a cracked piston. My best friend, who was a year older than I, already owned a Greeves Scottish at that juncture and with the aid of his dad – who just happened to own a BMC distributorship in sunny Newcastle-on-Tyne  – the Bantam was very quickly turned into a natty dirt-tracker.

I painted the thing a fairly obnoxious shade of gold over white, stuck an oversize Amal on it, cleaned up the ports with a Woolworth’s hand file and skimmed god-knows-what off the head. It went like a ferret up Larry Grayson’s trouser leg until one fateful day when I chucked it into the ‘fast’ corner on our local bombsite speedbowl in too low a gear. That bang was heard for miles around.

However a Bantam piston cost but a few bob and within a week I was trading in the re-built machine for a 197cc Dot, the differential being somewhere in the region of 20 notes, I seem to recall.

Now all that might sound very innocent and twee, but it was also a very easy-going way to get into a hobby that shouldn’t really become a big-bucks madness until one is old or smart enough to earn big bucks. And the ludicrous sixteener legislation changed all that; a nasty piece of work that inadvertently (perhaps) provided importers, insurance and finance companies with a licence to print money, whilst masquerading as a safety measure.

Image: Hunt Emerson

But however insidious that side of it might be, what drags a tear from my red-rimmed eyes is the fact that a whole era of do-it-yourself motorcycling high spirits has apparently disappeared for good. For although the Yamaha FS1-E and its counterparts from the other market hungry importers may very well be of excellent value, they are prone to the same maintenance complications, costs and spares shortages as their bigger banger brethren. And they all look, perform and handle just about the same. And that, to me, is very boring.

I know that the recent proliferation of Italian marques in the UK actually undermines the validity of the above opinion, but since they are all necessarily 49cc, there is hardly any comparison with the ‘good old days’ when you had up to 250 cubes to play around with. Maybe it’s my hatred of regimentation, and indeed the norm, that prompts a yearning for that past era of affordable variety.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting bitterly for three months for a Yamaha DT1 main bearing! Which only goes to show that however diligent the importers of the vast majority of bikes may claim to be, they can always pass the buck when it comes to spares. After all, in the old days you could always phone up Small Heath – even pop down there and raise Cain over the Ariel Pixie (oops) chaincase you’d been waiting, dare I say it, a fortnight for. But unless you can wrap your tongue around the Jap lingo and own a private jet, there’s no way you can get past the bland disclaimers of the importer.

Now the DT1, whilst I’m on my hobby horse (ain’t got much else to ride until the spares arrive), is/was a pretty popular bolide. Yet not one of Mitsui’s hot-shot, we’ll-never-let-you-down spares distributors have got anything as mundane as a DT1 main bearing. Mitsui have been waiting for them “since January”, I am told.

Which has meant, amongst other things, that I had one very good reason for not being able to enter this year’s Welsh 2-Days. The same reason, in fact, that indirectly prevented me from riding in last year’s event: waiting and waiting on the purchase of a DT1 engine for my pesky Yamadale buiId-up left me with a four-week deadline and no option but to buy a complete secondhand bike. And, natch, every dealer, distributor and importer greases you with the fatuous cop-out, “We’re waiting for a shipment from Japan”, and wonders why you get mad and write nasty things in motorcycle mags about them.

Ah well . . . or do I mean “ah so”?

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Bike – October 1975

This was written whilst recovering from only my second – and amazingly, my last – road accident which I covered with untypical reticence, possibly because it happened on the ride home from a small but rather wonderful rock festival run by the hippie entrepreneurs behind what became known the infamous Operation Julie, whose chemical largesse I was possibly still under the influence of at the time

As someone who is currently hobbling around with the aid of a walking stick, perhaps I’m not the best person to address you on the subject of high speed motorcycling. In fact I’m so full of painkillers at the moment that I’m not the best person to address you on anything that requires even a modicum of coherency.

However, the minimal demands of gonzo journalism being what they are, l have just been pointed in the direction of a typewriter and the reading public will doubtless thrill to the printed word which eventually transpires. Just as well they don’ t pay me for this stuff.

Anyway it was in my mind before I smacked up my leg against the side of
that goddam Datsun that I would pass a few comments about the joys, and otherwise of fuII-tiIt road-riding. It’s been my fortune in the past few weeks to spend a lot of time piloting fast motorcycles through our green and pleasant land, In fact I guess I’d been averaging about five hundred miles or so a week. Some of this was aboard Davick’s BeneIIi Sei demonstrator and the rest of it behind the threshing handlebars of my XS-2 – but don’t expect any sharp comments about these two very different boIides ’cause you’ve had a bellyful of them in recent issues, ain’cha? No, what I want to discuss is the low state of the driving art in this country and the effects it had on yrs. truly.

‘Course you gotta remember that this was high summer and the Austin Maxi and caravan brigade were out in force, especially In Wales where a lot of this lunacy took place. I suppose that old Doc Gilbert (the then Transport Minister – MW) would hardly warm to the idea of legislating these crawling bozos off the road, but to my mind they’re far more dangerous than any sixteen year-old on a road-going TZ250.

Well anyway the predominance of caravan-induced traffic jams in Wales this summer really was a hazard to a biker’s mental health. On some of the twistier roads a tailback of twenty or more vehicles could often be seen lying tamely in the wake of a slow moving marshmallow on wheels. After several bouts of not very skilful coffin cheating I developed a nifty way of zapping past tiresome wagon-trains as they crawled round the Z-bends: headlamp on, finger on the horn, Iowish gear and lots of engine noise. They either think it’s a rozzer or a lunatic and most of them are so dozy that they pull well into the kerb (if such there be) and/or grind to a halt – by which time you’re past with a grin and, if you choose, an anti-social display of digits.

The trouble is that one gets a bit blasé about using such devices to maintain a respectable average speed. After a while you find yourself flashing headlamps and sitting on the horn as you zap through even the sleepiest Welsh village at 90mph and all this at midnight. In fact an acquaintance of mine with more experience of this sort of outlandish riding (and the scars to prove it) advises those really serious about such things to wash a tube of Pro-Plus (or something less legal) down with a couple of high powered lagers before embarking on one’s trip, but I would never condone such practices. Oh no.

Stimulants would in fact have done little to exaggerate the already crazed cranium of your scribe after a fortnight’s highway weirdness at the hands of the motoring public. It got so bad after one cross-country trip from Wales to Peterborough (the Cleveland, Ohio, of England), that I started swearing at an innocent young petrol pumper when he raced over to gas up some asshole in an XJ6 who’d given me a bit of trouble earlier on, although I was into the place a good three minutes earlier. It wasn’t quite Sonny Barger stuff but it wasn’t Enid Blyton either, and I realised at that point that rider-mania had got me. Got me over the top, no less.

Rider-mania is quite simply not knowing when to stop. For some redundant and usually quite absurd reason you find yourself astride a motorcycle at 9.30am following a session of alcohol abuse that lasted well into the night. The sun is already beaming a good 75ºF onto the world with a promise of much more to come and you know – you just know – that there’s gonna be madness afoot once you hit the Queen’s highway. And your purpose then becomes to get to wherever in hell you’re going very, very quickly. None of that bullshit about drinking in the scenery or adhering to the inane speed limits, you’re going to get out on that tarmac and Ride with a capital ’R’. Suddenly you feel tight, and ready to go.

And then you find yourself riding at sustained high speeds for hours on end. And the longer the mania grips you, the higher those speeds get and the greater your capacity becomes for cutting up other road users and generally being obnoxious.

On the big Yamaha there was a quite discernible threshold above which all my reason went into the garbage can. (Actually that’s a fairly low threshold even when I’m not on a bike, but no matter). Since I put those ridiculously loud exhaust fitments (the word muffler would be a factual travesty) on the bike I’ve had trouble with the jetting and hunted high and low for oversize needle jets. Finally ace Yam sparesmen, Messrs. Damerells of St. Austell (yes, St. Austell in Cornwall) came up with a pair, and also the elusive gearbox bearing for my DTl (not a main bearing, as erroneously stated two months back to the annoyance of Yarn dealers throughout the world). But until that arrived I had a nasty flat spot around 4500 which made it hard to get above 70mph. Only by dropping a cog and winding it way above five grand before going back into top could I really get to boogie. But once I’d got there it was a pain in the ass to go back down again. Still, it took a week before I had the nerve to stay with the high revs come hell or high water… just had to hang on and tell the judge that all those Hillman Minx drivers religiously pootling along at 50 were to blame.

At this point I should relate how I really came to be a cripple, since it wasn’t actually my fault at all. Ahem, I was taking it very easy around a blind corner I happen to know as a bit of a bummer, when upon reaching its apex I espied a red Datsun slowly doing a U-turn across the entire main road – which was a  clearway incidentally. Very amusing. I went to cut in behind him but he froze when he saw me, thereby leaving me no room to pass. Stamping on the anchors failed to save me from a hefty smack-up courtesy of his rear wing. See you in court, matey.

The point of all this is that the standard of driving on our roads is pretty dire and getting worse all the time. Fuel economy, unrealistically low speed limits and poorly built (and maintained) cars are the basic reasons for the slowness of traffic on our open roads, and such speeds encourage drowsiness, lethargy, lack of concentration and the inability of a helluva lot of motorists to take smart avoiding action (when necessary), or to drive with respect for those who are able to drive or ride fast.

If we are to be beset by circumstances which clearly discourage skilful (as opposed to cautious) road use, then take note that some of us ain’t going to go down without a fight.