Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dave Witherow on motorbikes

The eighth in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from a January 1994 feature called “I Get a Kick Out of This” about 20 of life’s extraordinary pleasures. Back in February I posted James Allan’s piece on the pleasure of leaving early. Here is Dunedin writer Dave Witherow on motorbikes:
Speed, Aldous Huxley said, is probably the only really novel pleasure of modern times. Throughout history, until the invention of the combustion engine, top-whack for mankind was a horse-gallop. (It was possible to reach a higher speed in free-fall off a precipice, but this was a once-only experience, never popular and not much fun.)

Aldous loved speed. He had a stable of big, American cars, in which he used to blitz the Pacific highway near Big Sur. This was in the 50s, when the coastal highway was a lovely, empty road, swooping through forests and along the cliffs, a skid away from the ocean. But his love of the fast life was tempered by failing eyesight. He was dependent on having a driver, and none of his friends drove fast enough. None of them had a motorbike either.

Cars are all right, in principle. But modern cars are bland, deliberately engineered to deny their occupants any hint of raw velocity. And all of them, old or new, share the defect of enclosure. The passengers are isolated from the world outside. They sit in a small, upholstered room, watching the shifting scene glide past a cage of windows. There is no visceral response, except in an emergency, and speed, insofar as it is sensed at all, is sensed visually, like a movie.

A motorcyclist’s experience is nothing like that. To the biker the world begins at his nerve-ends. The sound of his motor echoes in his ears and the road flashes past beneath his feet. The biker is exposed, like a horseman. He feels the elements he passes through. His breath streams behind him in the wind, and speed is a physical impact.

Aldous was right. He recognised a unique pleasure that most of us have never known, or have forgotten. The remedy is the motorcycle. Two wheels, a frame, and a basic engine and gearbox – an iron horse. As sweet and fleet and functional as its original incarnation. Aldous would have loved it.

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