Crave new world

The jobs I left behind – journalism and TV production – are well-known. They are not well understood and the general public are deeply ambivalent about them. Tell someone you’re a journalist and they often back away thinking ‘Oh God, what did I tell him?’ They say “Don’t quote me.” and “Please don’t put that in the paper.” They say this regardless of how dull and of little public relevance their comments might be. But when they have an indignant sense of some injustice having occurred, they say “Right, I’m going to the papers with this,” and they fully expect us to put it in.

When you tell people you’re a TV producer, they say “Can you get me on the telly? I want to be famous.” When you ask them what they want to be famous for, they reply that they don’t want to excel in any particular field. They just want to be famous. On the other hand, people have a deep distrust of ‘the media’ and believe we are part of a conspiracy to protect bankers, crush the proletariat or whatever.

I shall miss these standard responses to my work. Now I shall have to get used to the quizzical look and the raised eyebrow. “A mediator? What’s that then? Is it like meditation?” Or perhaps, at social gatherings, when I tell people what I do, their eyes will refocus and look over my shoulder in case there’s someone more interesting to talk to. Someone in the media, perhaps.

But yes, that’s what I’ve been up to. As well as getting a shed and learning to ride a motorcycle, I have been training to be a mediator – someone who helps to resolve conflicts before they blow up into court cases, employment tribunals, feuds, wars, you know the kind of thing. I’m still on the course so haven’t done any real mediations yet but I found my experience as an interviewer and as a union rep very helpful. More on that as it happens.

Another thing I’ve been doing is voluntary work for the Witness Service, a division of Victim Support. I’ve been working in Cardiff Magistrates’ court and will be in the crown court tomorrow.

And another thing – poetry. 

ImageHere I am, in the south of France, practising my iambic pentameter. More about this in a separate post, probably but here’s the thing: accepting redundancy has given me the chance to concentrate on the stuff that I believe in. Witnesses play a vital role in our criminal justice system and they deserve all  the help and information they can get. Mediation is an all-round good thing in that it gets to the bottom of conflict, enables people to be happier with each other and saves the nation a fortune. And poetry is one of those precious things that make us human. 

Of course, I don’t know for sure how any of this is going to work out but it certainly wouldn’t work if I never gave it a try. So, if you’re thinking about redundancy, don’t just think about the negatives. Consider the possibilities if you decide to take the money and run.

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Biking gets better and better

Getting a motorbike was one of the best things I’ve done. Every journey becomes an enjoyable adventure. And with the fabulous summer weather, I can enjoy the sunshine with a steady, cooling breeze and smell new-mown grass and fragrant oilseed rape as I thrumble along.

PampicLast week, I went out for a ride with Pam Tod (pictured left) who inspired me to get a bike, and Chris Williams, the bloke who told me about the Enfield for sale. When it’s sunny, Wales is such a brilliant country for motorcycling.

Two milestones since the last blog have been:

1) Taking Charlotte as a pillion passenger on a proper trip. She got togged up in her very attractive black-and-olive outfit with black Arai helmet. We crossed the Severn and went to visit friends in Somerset. They didn’t know we had a motorbike so it was a surprise for them when we rumbled up their drive!

Enfield. FromeNow don’t get the idea that I rode there in brown canvas trousers. I simply took them along to wear while we had lunch. For riding, I wore proper, matching kit.

That was a great day and Charlotte enjoyed the ride. And there was that deeply satisfying moment when you get to the toll booth at the Severn bridge and you don’t have to pay!

2) The next big event was riding with my son, Joseph, over the Black Mountain to Llandovery and back, via the A40 and A470, to Bikers’ Corner at Storey Arms.

Storey Arms +2As you can see, he hired a Harley for the day and we started off with breakfast at Franklin’s Cafe at Ogmore by Sea (the place where Pam is chef de cuisine).

Lovely weather, wonderful ride, beautiful scenery and fabulous views from the mountain heights. If you have a son who can ride a motorbike, definitely do this!

Right, gotta dash!

Franklin's 13.07.13

Being a biker – my first week

So, I passed my final test on Monday, 15th April. The next day was the first proper spring day of the year. Daffodils, blue sky, gambolling lambs; it was even a bit warm. My wife got home from work a bit early so she could drive me out to a shed on an industrial estate in rural Vale of Glamorgan to collect the Royal Enfield which you can see on the header bar. It’s the black one on the left. 

As we stepped out of the house, me in my full motorbike outfit, we waved to our next-door neighbours before getting into my wife’s Nissan Micra. Well, gives ’em something to think about.

We arrived a bit early, about 5.20pm, This was the scrubby end of the estate where it almost crumbled away into nearby fields. All was quiet. We could hear blackbirds singing and lambs bleating. Then, the cheerful sound of an easy-going, twin-cylinder engine. Along the track came a three-wheel car that looked like a little aeroplane without wings. At the front, you could see the polished cylinder heads and cooling fins of a Citroen 2CV engine. At the wheel, wearing leather jacket and goggles, was Barry, the aircraft engineer who was about to release the motorbike into my possession. 

The handover was brisk and cheery. A handshake and a wave and, within a few minutes, I was chugging along narrow, country lanes with my wife’s little red car in the rear-view mirrors. Once on the A48, we stopped at a filling station and she bought me my first tank of petrol. 

And here I am, back home, safe and sound after my first ride on the Enfield. It was a glorious ride. The following day, I had to be out in the car all day so Thursday was the day 

Enfield home

of my first real trip as a street-legal, qualified biker. There was only one possible destination – Franklin’s Cafe at Ogmore on Sea. This is where Pam the cook introduced me to Chris, the man who knew Barry who had this perfectly maintained Royal Enfield for sale. Pam was a bit of a late convert to motorcycling (but not as late as I was) and had got an Enfield as her first full-size bike. It was Pam, back in January, who said I should spend my newly-found free time and redundancy money on taking up motorcycling. 

And so it was quite an occasion when I rode back into the Vale of Glamorgan and thrumbled onto the seaside cafe’s forecourt. 

Fish and chips and a pot of tea, please Pam!

It's all her fault!  Pam and Nicholas with the Enfield at Franklin's Cafe.

It’s all her fault!
Pam and Nicholas with the Enfield at Franklin’s Cafe.

Becoming a biker

Right, so I’ve got the bike, now I have to get a licence.

When I was a young man, in another millennium, passing a motorbike test was easy-peasy. And a lot of young men got killed or badly injured. When I was 16, I had a moped which I rode for a year with ‘L’ plates. At any time, I could have taken a test on that moped and got a motorcycle licence. If I’d done that, then either:

A) I wouldn’t have to go through all the bother of taking the modern tests.

B) I would have died young.

 

For many years, my driving licence – even when it changed to plastic – had a little symbol of a motorbike on it, showing my provisional entitlement to ride. When my latest licence arrived, I was quite annoyed to see that the little motorbike wasn’t there. I resolved to get it back – and then some!

So first I bought a motorbike. It just sort of happened. I found myself chatting with some middle-aged bikers  in a small engineering workshop in the Vale of Glamorgan, chequebook at the ready, eyeing a gorgeous, gleaming, black-and-chrome machine. How the hell did I get here?

Two days previously, I had been having lunch in my favourite seaside cafe when a bloke turned up on a classic, single-cylinder Royal Enfield from the 1950s . It turned out he was a good friend of Pam, the cafe’s cook, who was a recent convert to motorcycling. Pam introduced the biker as Chris. I told him I had been thinking of getting a bike, probably a Royal Enfield. I wasn’t after a screaming rocket  with vivid stripes and designer aggression, I just had a hankering for a classic motorcycle, something noble and steady.

“I know a man who’s selling one just like that,” said Chris. It was three years old but had been maintained to perfection by an aircraft engineer. It was an all-black, 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet with a pillion seat and a black leather pouch on the front. Pam thought it was destiny.

So I met the owner two days later in Chris’s shed. Turns out he was not merely an aircraft engineer but he had actually rebuilt two Spitfires to full airworthiness. Well, that sold it. My grandfather, Percy Whitehead, worked at Rolls Royce during World War Two. His job was building Merlin engines for Spitfires. I always smile and think of him when I’m at an air show and hear the distinctive Merlin roar as a Spitfire passes overhead. Now, here in front of me, stood a retired Spitfire builder who needed a bit of ready cash. Reader, I gave him the money.

More on the motorbike story in the next blog. Also a shed and garden update!

Yes, I’ve got a motorbike!

Redundancy acquaints a man with the back yard of his mind. This is the part of ourselves that gets scant attention when we go to work every day and always have more urgent things to bother about. But when the distractions of urgency have been removed, one can see this yard and its contents more clearly.

I once spent a week with the British Army in Northern Ireland. This was in the 1990s when the ‘Troubles’ were on and the IRA was still active. I was allowed to see inside a bunker which I shall describe only vaguely but it was a sort of co-ordination centre where there were maps and so on to show what was going on in that troubled province. It was a highly stressful environment because soldiers on the ground relied on information from that bunker. If the information was not correct, was not correctly interpreted or was not passed to the right people at the right time, that could result in people being killed who might otherwise have been saved. Everyday work in this bunker was literally a matter of life and death. In this bunker was a large poster. It did not say ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, it said:

Don’t do what’s urgent – do what’s important.

I don’t suppose they put that poster up on Day One. It will have been put there after someone had focused on immediate (and relatively trivial) issues instead of the main job and, as a consequence, lives were lost. In the civilian workplace, a total cock-up at the office rarely means anything worse than a lost contract or a tedious job having to be done all over again. This means we can ignore the ‘Do what’s important’ message for year after year without any lives being lost. Except our own.

Royal Enfield

Me and my bike.

So, in the back yard of my mind there are three things – poetry, a shed and a motorbike. The poetry survived, rather like a rose bush in my actual back garden which I discovered after removing a mass of brambles and bindweed which the previous owners had allowed to grow there. The long-term yearnings for a motorbike and a good shed were there as well, obscured by ‘urgent’ concerns.

Yes, it’s a Royal Enfield. More about my motorcycle adventure in my next post.