Back home again, it was spring of 1969, I had no job and didn't really want one. I wanted to have some fun before I got tied back down with a boring job. I have always found work to be a necessary evil and have never enjoyed it. I resolved to grow my hair long again and grow a beard. In other words, a low maintenance lifestyle. I got the Lightning out and rode a lot of miles, travelling anywhere the fancy took me. I signed on the dole and resisted all their attempts to place me in work. Signing on wasn't made so easy as it is today, I had to go to the employment exchange in Southgate Street, to register for work. Then I had to walk down Commercial Road to the dole office to sign on, before I could get any money. I had to sign on, every week at an allotted time and collect the money, in cash. If I was late, there was an inquest as to why I been unable to attend when required. The staff were often rude and surly. I was never surprised when a row erupted between a claimant and a member of staff, as often happened. I was regularly called into the employment exchange, where they offered me all kinds of jobs, most which were totally unsuitable. One day my interviewer offered me a job as a bacon boner at Hilliers processed meat factory, in Nailsworth. I told him that I knew nothing about bacon boning. To which he replied that my record showed that I had worked at The British Beef Co. I agreed that I had indeed worked there, but I was a pen pusher, a clerk, not a bacon boner. I had never handled meat in my life and had no desire to do so. He wouldn't be put off that easily though. He said that I could learn.
I tried another tack and said, 'Nailsworth is twenty miles away, how am I supposed to get there, I don't have a car.'
He still wouldn't give up. I was amazed when he said, 'according to our records, you have a motorcycle.'
I looked the him straight in the eye and lied that as I was out of work, I had sold the bike to pay some debts. That did it, I had won this round, but it had been a hard fight.
It was hard living though, the money was only enough for a very poor existence. I went into town most days and hung around with Suresh and other old pals. We often sat for hours, in the Bon Marché café, with one cup of tea or sometimes a plate of chips with gravy over them. This was a good value meal, the gravy was thick and tasty. Some of the serving ladies objected to our requests for gravy, because there was no price for it without a meal We insisted it must be free, because our plate of chips was a meal. We never had a problem when Ada was serving, she would ladle on as much as we wanted.
Sometimes I went to the college in Brunswick Road, I used the canteen for subsidised, students meals and then went to the common room for a rest in a nice easy chair and a free cup of tea. People got quite used to me being there and never seemed to notice that I never took any classes. I was relaxing in a chair one day, when I was engaged in conversation by some students, suddenly one of them asked what I was doing at the college. I replied with a joke that I was doing as little as possible. They all laughed and said, 'the same as the rest of us then.'
One evening I went to Kingsholm rugby ground to watch Gloucester play the Pennsylvanians, a team from the USA. It turned out to be a good fun game, with Gloucester winning by more than fifty points. But it was an eminently enjoyable evening. I came out of the ground, in a buoyant mood and went to where I had parked the Lightning, to make my way home. I had parked outside the Jockey, between two cars. My beloved Lightning was not there. Slightly stunned and not quite believing that it was gone, I thought perhaps I had parked farther down the road. I walked up and down Kingsholm Road two or three times before I admitted to myself that it had been stolen. Dejectedly, I walked to Bearland to report the theft. The policeman on the desk took the details of the bike and the circumstances of the theft, with little interest. I made my way from there, to the bus stop and made a miserable journey home to Tuffley.
All of a sudden, things didn't seem too great. I had no job, no money and now I had no transport. I wasn't very happy.
My brother Gordon had become friendly with Phil Large, who was to become another lifelong friend. They were running the Sound City mobile disco, travelling all around the area playing their records and having fun doing it. I started going with them, in Phil's old Bedford van. They were doing village halls, skittle alleys, church halls, pubs, clubs, school dances, private parties, anywhere they could get a booking. They were good at it too, they were very entertaining DJ's. I was immensely proud of Gordon's flair for it. He was very popular wherever he went. I had some great night's out by going along with them. In return, I kept order when it was necessary. One night, we were at a church hall in Belgrave Road. A young lad was really playing up, making everybody nervous. Eventually he went too far and smashed a window. I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and the seat of his trousers and threw him out. He stood outside, cursing and threatening that he would return with his mates, who would give me a good hiding. I just told him to bugger off. Half an hour later, he was back with the man he thought was going to do it for him. I smiled as they walked towards me and said hello John. It was John Myatt, an old friend. The lad's jaw dropped, it was obvious that there would be no fight between John and me. John asked me what had gone on and I told him. He turned to the lad and cuffed him round the head, telling him to clear off home and stop causing trouble. John was a real hard case, but a very nice man. He was a member of the Scorpions motorcycle gang, as was I. We didn't fight among ourselves, but we would fight anyone else. But at the moment, I was a biker without a bike.
Gordon and Phil were both on the dole, while they were doing these disco's and it was a constant worry that someone from the dole office would be at one of the gigs. Phil didn't seem to care much, which he proved when he took a booking to do a party at Cedar House, the new Social Security office, in Spa Road. It had just been built and the top floor was not yet in use, so they decided to have a staff party up there. There was an incredible amount of food laid on, which we helped ourselves to, as a perk of the job. I was constantly broke and any free food was always welcome. There was so much at this party, that we decided to take some home, to carry on the party and to eat the next day. We kept going up to the tables, filling a plate and returning to behind the record decks, where we transferred the food into LP record cases which we had emptied and quietly taken the records down to the van. We filled up a couple of cases with sandwiches, chicken legs, vol au vents and cakes then carried them down to the van. It was enough to keep us fed for days. Nobody noticed the missing food, or the fact that Gordon and Phil were claiming benefit.
One night we were at Quedgeley Village Hall, where Sound City had been booked for the local Friday night hop. It wasn't a great night, so I decided to wander off, down to the Plough for an hour. I was walking down the Bristol Road, when I was surprised by my dad pulling up alongside me. He got out and told me he had just read the Citizen and there was a small piece about someone having been fined £40 at Gloucester magistrate's court for the theft of my bike. It was the first I had heard of it.
Dad said, 'come on, I'll take you to the police station.' We went to reception at Bearland and enquired what had happened.
The constable made some enquiries and said, 'oh yes, the bike has been here for some time. Didn't anybody inform you?'
'You won't be able to have it tonight, it's in one of the garages, round the back of the station. You'll have to come back tomorrow.'
We went off home and although I was annoyed by the incompetence of the police, in not telling me the bike had been recovered, I was also elated to think I would be getting it back tomorrow.
I made my way to Bearland, the next morning, full of anticipation. I would soon be back on the road. A policeman took me to a garage, undid the lock and lifted the up and over door.
I said, 'it's not here!'
The policeman looked at his clipboard and said, 'it must be here, this is the right garage, according to my sheet. Let's have a look around.'
This was only a small domestic sized concrete garage, you couldn't hide a large motorcycle in it. Then, over in a far corner I saw it, behind some junk. All that was left of my Lightning was a frame and an engine.
I turned to the copper and said, 'how am I supposed to ride that home? He wasn't at all interested, he said, it's not my problem mate.'
I said, 'you're all a bunch of tossers. First you don't tell me that it's here, I have to read about it in the paper. Then you tell me to collect it, without telling me that it's just a bag of bits. What's the matter with you pratts.'
He said, there's no need for that attitude.
I just said, 'bollocks you fucking wanker and walked away.'
This bloke, Ken something, I have forgotten his full name, had stolen my bike, stripped everything off it and had only been fined £40. He had made a profit. Where's the justice in that? I vaguely knew this Ken, I had occasionally ridden with him along with others. He had a BSA Thunderbolt, the model lower in specification to mine. Apparently he had been jealous that my Lightning could always beat his Thunderbolt, so he had stolen it, with the intention of hotting up his own bike, using the parts from mine.
I went back to Bearland the next day, with a friend who had a van. This time, the detective who had been on the case, came with me to open the garage. As we put the sorrowful few parts of what had been my pride and joy, into the van, the detective told me that the bike had been found at the Golden Valley motorcycle club at Barbers Bridge, near Newent. I could hardly believe it, the Golden Valley club members were always thought of as the goody goody bikers. It was us, The Scorpions who were the archetypal rebel bikers.
The detective said, 'when are you going to sort this out then?'
I asked him what he meant.
The detective smiled and said, 'I know what I would do and I think I know what you'll do.' I assured him that there would be nothing like that going on.
Dejectedly, I looked at the small pile of parts, gathered together, in the shed at the back of our prefab. I went to my insurers and started the usual rigmarole. Fortunately I had been insured, but it didn't lessen the pain and annoyance I felt about the theft.
Roger Haines turned up and sympathised over the state of the bike, we both stood there looking at it, shaking our heads, not knowing what to say to each other, except for growling things like, 'the bastard,'
I was building up to an all pervading, powerful rage. It had taken a few days to find out where Ken lived, but now I knew. I asked Roger to take me there in his car. When we got to Ken's house in Cotteswold Road, I went to the front door and knocked gently. Ken answered the door, but as soon as he saw who it was, he tried to close it again as fast as he could. He wasn't fast enough though. In a fraction of a second I had grasped him by the throat with my left hand and pulled him through the door, into the garden. I hit him with my right hand, which tore him from my grasp and knocked him to the ground. As he hit the ground, I started kicking his head in. The red mist had come over me and I wanted to hurt him severely. As I was kicking him, I could hear him saying something like, if I stopped hitting him, he had some parts I could have. I couldn't believe my ears, he was offering some of my own bike back. I stopped hitting him and dragged him to his feet.
I said, 'show me!'
He took Roger and me to the shed at the back of the house and to my amazement, it was full of bike parts. It was obvious where most of it must have come from. I found my own headlight and a few other small parts, plus some exhaust pipes that were better than mine had been. We loaded it all into the car and left Ken to lick his wounds.
Barbers Bridge was to be the next target, I was furious that they could allow such a thing to happen at their club. The club house was an old red brick British rail station, that had been closed down during the Dr Beeching cuts a few years previous. Even the track had been taken up. My bike had been found in one of the old station outbuildings that now belonged to the club. I knew that they must have seen what had been going on.
A few days later, I asked Hughie MacPherson to take me to there. It was early on a Saturday evening. I knew there would be club members there. Hughie was a bit dubious about going into a biker club to start trouble, with the odds liable to be stacked heavily against us. I told him not to worry, I would handle it. I didn't care how many were in there, after all, I had my sledge hammer and they didn't. We pulled up outside the club, I could see immediately that there was a good few of them inside. I got out of the car with my sledge hammer in hand and crashed through the door, screaming like a maniac. BASTAAAAARDS, I shouted, at the top of my voice. I brought the hammer down onto a table that had people sitting around it. It smashed to pieces, scattering the bikers in all directions. I was attacking anything that came into my field of view, which was very narrow, due to the fact that the red mist had descended again. As I was attacking the fireplace, I could see that everybody had pressed themselves against the walls, shuffling backwards and forwards trying to keep out of the way of the swinging sledge hammer.
I heard someone shouting, 'stop him! Stop him!'
But who was going to do it?
I heard Hughie say, 'I can't stop him.'
Then I heard someone shout, 'it was us who shopped Ken to the police.'
That did it. I stopped what I was doing and said, 'what was that?'
Someone repeated what I thought I had heard. They said, they had found out what Ken had been doing and had reported it to the police. That bastard copper had led me to believe that the Golden Valley club had been partly to blame. I suddenly felt very sheepish about all the damage I had done.
I said, 'sorry lads, turned and left.' Nobody ever mentioned it again.
Now that the fate of my bike was known, the insurance company sent their assessor to look at what was left of it. He made his offer which would be enough to get it back on the road, but not enough to make it the same as it had been before the theft. It would never be the same again. To keep the cost down, I ordered the parts from Nettleton Motorcycles with the intention of doing the work myself. I took all of the bits into my bedroom and started to put the bike back together. Once I had got all of the parts together, it took me about a week to finish the assembly. I put some petrol into the tank and fired her up. The high level exhaust pipes had no silencers on them, just small mutes pushed inside and secured with a small screw. The noise in that small bedroom was tremendous and the room soon started to fill with exhaust gas. I opened the window to let the gas out so that I could continue to rev the engine, to enable me to warm it up to tune the carbs. Just then, I heard a knock on the door, it was Roger Haines calling to see if I needed any help. Roger was great at setting the ignition timing and tuning the carbs, so I asked him to take over.
He said, 'we'll have to get it outside first, we're going to die if we stay in here.'
I said, 'okay, open the door for me.'
Roger opened the front door and I blasted out of the bedroom, along the hall and out through the door, down the two steps, into the front garden. Roger was rolling about laughing, he said he'd never seen anything like it.
It seemed quite logical to me that I would do the rebuild in the bedroom, I needed electricity so that I could work into the night and I needed it to be dry, so that I didn't have to worry about the rain. The small shed, out the back, was too small to work in and had no power, so the bedroom had to be my temporary workshop.
Everybody knew Roger's reputation as a tuner and he was often asked to help out with setting carbs. One afternoon, I went with him to a prefab in Podsmead, where someone had asked Roger to set up a fuel injector on a Triumph.
Roger looked and the injector and said, 'I had one of these but it was so dangerous, I got rid of it.'
The major fault was, that if the fuel tap was left on, fuel leaked through the injector, some dripping out of the back and some running into the engine, gradually filling it up. Roger asked the owner, if the timing had been set correctly and was assured that it had been. He turned the petrol on and kicked the engine over. It let out a small bang, through the injector.
Roger asked again, 'are you sure this timing is right?'
The answer for the second time was yes, it was definitely okay. Roger kicked the bike over again and this time the bike started and sounded fine. During this starting procedure, some fuel had leaked from the back of the injector, but it wasn't a problem. Suddenly there was a bang and a flame shot out of the injector, igniting the leaked fuel, erupting in a ball of flame. It was such a shock and so powerful, that Roger and I, ran around the side of the house, in case the bike blew up and to get away from the fire,. The owner of the bike was in a panic, but he was much more interested in putting the fire out than we were. He started running in and out of the house throwing water onto the fire. His mum was in the kitchen filling buckets for him to throw over the bike. We were still peering around the corner of the house, with just our heads showing. He shouted for us to come and help him put the fire out. We told him he was doing all right and to carry on. He got it out after a few minutes but there was a considerable amount of damage done in that short time. There would be no need for any more tuning to this bike for a while. Roger advised him to throw the injector away, before the bike blew up completely.
I had got the bike together just in time to ride to the Bath Blues festival. I had been looking forward to it for ages, it was the first festival I had ever been to and the line up was very impressive. Bands that would become legends played, one after the other, at this one day venue at the recreation ground in Bath. Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Ten Years After, Led Zeppelin, The Nice, Keef Hartley, Chicken Shack, to name but a few, all introduced by the very young DJ, John Peel. There were about twenty big name acts playing back to back for about twelve hours, all for eighteen shillings and sixpence. It was worth going just to see Led Zeppelin, they were the most outstanding band I have ever seen. The other band which made a huge impression on me was Ten Years After, who also gave a wonderful performance at Woodstock. I still listen to their music today, almost thirty years on.
That summer I spent a lot of time just hanging around town with friends, it seemed quite strange because dad was doing the same and we often met. He was still doing some part time taxi work and some part time coach driving, but since his retirement through ill health, he had a lot of time on his hands. He had two friends of around his own age, which was only fifty, very young to have to retire. They could invariably be found together, sitting at a table in the Cadena café, a place mum had often taken Gordon and me, when we were children. Mum had bought me my first knickerbocker glory in the Cadena. It was a very large, rather dark, but quite splendid old café, the lighting always seemed to me to make everything brown. Dark brown floor, brown paint, brown furniture, brown place, but warm and friendly with neat waitresses, dressed with white aprons and hats.
As the summer started to change into autumn, I decided that it was time to get a job to get some money together. I bought a Citizen and went into Eastgate Market to get a cup of tea at Peter Fahey's tea stall and to sit and check the vacancies in the paper. Hughie MacPherson was working in the market at W T Johns butchers and he came over for a cup of coffee. We talked and went through the ads together, I didn't have a lot of experience in anything so I didn't find much that I thought would be suitable. Hughie pointed to an ad for a capstan operator at Bound and Topham engineering works, in Hempstead Lane.
I said, 'I don't even know what a capstan is, Hughie.'
He said, 'it doesn't matter, you'll be able to do it, go for it.'
He had more faith than I did, but I went for the job and to my surprise, they gave it to me. I was shown what to do and Hughie had been right, I soon got to grips with it. I was working the capstan, turning out stainless steel balls, which fitted inside valves. Soon I was earning bonus on the job, the boss told me that I was the fastest man they had ever had on that machine. I was earning more money than I had ever earned before. I was making ten shillings an hour, plus tuppence a ball over a certain amount. I had never worked in a factory environment and found the regime quite difficult to live with. I had been there a few months when one day I had to go out during the lunch hour and I knew time would be tight. We were allowed three minutes to wash our hands before lunch, but my machine was on a cycle so I didn't go to the washbasin. I kept my coat next to my machine and I put it on so that when the machine stopped, I could press the off button and rush out without washing my hands if there wasn't time before one o clock. Everybody else had gone to the washbasin and I was the only one left I the workshop, when the foreman came up to me and said, 'what are you doing with your coat on.'
I answered that I was in a hurry to get out as soon as the bell went. He started to tear me off a strip and told me to get my coat back off.
I said, 'hang on a minute, I'm the only one working, there's nobody else in the shop. Why are you bollocking me?'
He was totally unreasonable about it and the more I argued, the nastier he got.
He said, 'get your coat off or you can go to see Mr Topham.'
I grabbed him by the throat and squeezed till he went a funny colour. Some of the others had come back into the workshop and witnessed what had happened and were shouting 'go on, fill the bastard in.'
I threw him to the floor and walked out of the factory, got on the bike and went off to do what I had intended to do. When I returned, I went back to my machine as if nothing had happened. Before long, Mr Topham sent for me. I went to his office not worried if I got the sack. He asked me what had happened and I told him.
He just said, 'don't do it again, you can go back to work.'
The foreman never had a go at me again.
I worked there for a few months but became increasingly bored with standing next to a machine for ten hours a day. I started to have more and more time off, sometimes telling them that I was sick, sometimes not telling them anything at all. The two weeks coming up to Christmas, I just didn't bother to turn up. They had organised a Christmas party at the Fleece hotel, in Westgate Street. I hadn't been at work for two weeks, but I turned up at the party, anyway. Mr Topham came over to me and said, 'I thought you had left.' I replied that I hadn't, but I might as well. I told him that I would call in, some time after the Christmas break, for my P45 and any money owing to me. I had a good night at the party and used the occasion to say goodbye to some of the friends I had made while I worked there.
Christmas 1969 came and went. There was no sense of occasion about it for me. Christmas is very much a time for sharing, a family thing. I was very distant from my family, feeling very alone. Aunty Ina invited Dad, Gordon and I, for Christmas dinner, with her, Hugh and Uncle Den. We were made very welcome and had a nice day, but I knew I would never do it again. I was feeling more and more isolated. I felt that I needed no one to survive, but did I want to survive? I wasn't sure.
I have an old black and white photograph of that Christmas day. When I look at it, I can't believe that my dad is only fifty years old. He looked seventy and not well at that.
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Copyright © 1999 Cliff Ballinger. All rights reserved.