Back Street Heroes





HElooked decidedly out of place in the serene Viennese splendour of Fritz Galnickal’s Austrian Burger Bar, especially since he was dressed in his older brother’s oily Levis, a Clash tee-shirt, hiking boots, eight feet of studded wristbands, and a green Barbour jacket worn over a fringed suede waistcoat, not to mention the pigtails, and the Marlon Brando leather pilot’s cap with chains (and I’d rather not, come to think of it). “Ere, Jim,” he informed me, “you’d better get to Cheapside – all the bikes have fallen over.” Cheapside is where we park all our bikes on a Saturday, since it’s one of the few places sanctioned by the Council, albeit unofficial­ly, where you can park bikes and not have them napalmed by traffic wardens, disinfecte­d by the social services, or welded together by enraged car owners. There’s just one problem – it’s on a hill and, while older and more mature bikers, like me, always go to the trouble of heaving our bikes on to their centre-stands, it has been known for the less thoughtful to just kick out the prop-stand and wander off, leaving their machinery to tilt sideways in the sun-warmed tarmac. That’s all right if they’re at the bottom of the hill, at the far end of the line... Scum’s words’d just reminded me that my BSA was at the bottom of the hill, at the end of the line (parked on the main-stand, of course). I groaned, cursed, pushed the Hotto-chocco Heavenly Surprise to one side untasted, and got up to leave. As I walked out, a bony, middledage­d vegetarian lady looked at me with some satisfacti­on, and commented: “You’ve probably saved your life, walking away from that muck. Do you realise there’s 3000 calories in chocolate cake with cream and hot sauce? And, frankly, you don’t look as if your arteries’d stand much more abuse.” “Piss off,” I told her, because it didn’t seem the time or place to start explaining why I’m a firm believer in the 13,000 Calories Per Day Sumo Wrestlers Diet. As I was walking through Market Square I was accosted (I use the word loosely, you understand) by a bulky dungaree-clad feminist with shortcropp­ed hair and a distinctly rodent-like cast of features; she was carrying a bundle of magazines, and I caught sight of the leading article on the front page – ‘Castration: The Solution to Sexist Aggression? The Sisters Speak Up’. “Ere, mate, want a ‘Woman’s Voice’?” she rumbled at me. “No thank you,” I squeaked back in my highest falsetto, “can’t you tell I’ve already got one?” It took me five minutes to walk away, and throughout all that time I was followed by the best and most colourful verbal abuse I’ve ever encountere­d – not only was I accused of things I had actually been and done, but I was castigated (and I mean castigated!) for things I’ve never even contemplat­ed doing… well, not until I had them described to me, anyway. When I got to Cheapside, I was quite cheered up by the sight of the bikes, despite Scum’s ominous words of warning. An LC125 (yes, it’d been parked on its prop-stand) had fallen over the other way, and knocked over a 400 Super Dream. This’d toppled an XS850, which’d knocked a ratty 500 Triumph into a BMW, which’d caused a Gold Wing to lurch over, crushing a Jawa and an MZ125 (which now had a bit of Puch moped sticking through it). And, eight feet away from this mountain of scrap, and still on its centre-stand, was my BSA Lightning, looking as good as it always did. I was still sniggering about this when someone backed an Austin Allegro into it from the other end, with a sound like a Centurion tank being fed slowly through a hover mower piece by piece. The driver, a middle-aged man with a flat cap, a pipe, and braces holding up grey flannel trousers, got out of his car, and looked down at the bike, which was dribbling petrol out of the filler cap vent-hole, which was at least washing some of the oil off the leaky barrels before it hit the Tarmac and started melting it. “Bloody stupid place to park a bike eh, mate?” he said to me. “I’d like to meet the pillock who decided to park here.” I handed him the headlamp, which I’d picked up just as it was starting to roll downhill, damaging Joseph Lucas’s fine chrome – it’s funny how the Prince of Darkness never got around to making decent electrics when you consider his headlamps were shinier and more rust-resistant than anything the people who actually made the bikes ever got around to fitting. “Just give this a rub,” I told him, and he looked puzzled, as well he might. “Why?” he asked me. “Because,” I told him, “I’m the genie of the bloody lamp, that’s why, and I’ve decided to grant your wish – you blind arse’ole, I’m the pillock who owns the bike, that’s why.” He suddenly became interested in BSA A65s, and scrutinise­d it closely. “It’s a BSA twin, innit?” he queried. “About fifteen years old?” I nodded. “Whew,” he said, with a crazed smile of relief, “good job I didn’t run into a new bike, eh? Particular­ly one of those big Jap ones, it would’ve cost me an arm and a leg!” “It still might,” I said, fishing in my bag for the three-foot, six-pound adjustable wrench. “But I’m sure we can come to some amicable arrangemen­t before your appointmen­t in intensive care...” “But I’m not ill,” he assured me, so I assured him he was a lot sicker, potentiall­y, than he’d ever believed possible, at which point the penny dropped, and he started reaching for his cheque book. When he’d driven off, looking amazed at the cost of spares for British bikes, I levered the Beesa up, and pushed it down the hill to the bike shop, which was still being run by Frank (Senior) in those days, and was the last bastion of British bits, advice, commonsens­e and sanity (it still is, incidental­ly, now it’s in the hands of Frank Junior, although he’s caught on that £3.12.11d is no longer a reasonable price for a Gold Star silencer, which is something of a pity). Old Frank was in good form when I entered the shop. “No,” he was saying to a depressedl­ooking pseudo-outlaw, “I can’t ever recall Harley making a two-stroke vee-twin. Can you?” he said, catching sight of me, and I assured him that Harley had made a lot of funny bikes, but never one quite as funny as that. “Of course,” he went on, looking up at the sky as if receiving divine revelation, “if you’d only ever owned a Bantam and a Suzuki 500, you might think a Harley side-valve was a twostroke, with those funny fins sticking up on the cylinder heads, eh?” He grinned, knowing this was a sore point with me ever since I’d called at a garage on my WLA and had an over-eager attendant put a pint of oil straight into the peanut tank, convinced of the same point (not that the Harley ran much worse for it, but there you go). “Seized, has it?” he asked the luckless other H-D owner. “But I was running it on a 40:1 petrol/oil mix,” the bemused would-be Peter Fonda answered. “I never had any trouble with my Bantam like that…” “No, you wouldn’t,” Frank replied patiently. “I’ll try to explain it simply to you. The thing is…” At this point I decided to borrow some tools and bolt the Lightning back together again, because I wasn’t sure that my sphincter was up to dealing with all that suppressed hysteria.

“Oil,” Frank was saying as I walked out of the shop, “is like blood…” “I don’t understand,” the H-D owner was saying. “I mean, Duckham’s is green, innit?” I got into the car park, pushing the Beeza, and caught sight of the Harley. You couldn’t mistake it – it was the only bike there with bright blue and purple exhausts all along its length, not to mention a smell of melting metal, of course. As I was bolting the headlamp back in place, there was an erratic spitting, roaring, clattering, whistling noise from the far end of the car park, and Mad Max broadslid towards me on his GS750 chop. Not THE Mad Max, of course, just A Mad Max. Not that he wasn’t called Max (that’s what his parents’d called him), and everybody else’d added the ‘Mad’ when the leather-clad figure of Mel Gibson erupted on to the silver screen just as our Max got his first big bike. It was an old BSA Thunderbol­t I’d sold him in fact, but he never seemed to hold that against me, although we’d had a slight disagreeme­nt about why I’d ridden it for a year without even an oilleak, and he’d blown it apart in six weeks. He’d started taking the nickname seriously, and dressing the part, which’d achieved the sort of style that had got dogs yapping at the mere smell of him, old ladies keeling over at the sight of him, and every copper who was old enough to have done National Service and remember the fading vestiges of Empire wish to have him in a sniper’s sight for five seconds – don’t ask me why, he was completely harmless, it’s just that he was… err, well, mad, that’s all. “Hiya, Foggie,” he said to me, grinning crazily, and flinging his bike on to its stand, and cutting the engine. “Christ, that Suzuki of yours sounds really rough,” I answered. “Burnt valves, blown gaskets, leaking silencers, carbs out of synch…” “…You haven’t noticed the dragging clutch, huh?” he said triumphant­ly. “You must be getting senile. Like the crossbow?” he added, waving an arm on which there was a nylon moto-cross shinpad strapped, with something mediaeval mounted on it. “And how about the chainmail, eh?” He was wearing chainmail underpants, outside his patchwork leather jeans of course. It went well with the brass studs, the scrambler armour, and the disintegra­ting leather and denim, and I told him so, too. “I’m ready for the breakdown of civilisati­on,” he assured me. “How about you, eh Foggie?” “I’m not even ready for civilisati­on,” I answered. “I spend three hours every morning wondering which leg I ought to put first into my Levis when I start to get out of bed…” “That right?” he replied, and looked at the slightly battered Beeza. “Oh, I thought you’d just started work on your Armageddon bike.” “No, that was a guy in an Allegro,” I assured him, and he asked me if the guy could do the same for his Suzuki, and I said it was quite likely. “Fancy coming to a religious meeting?” he suddenly asked, and it surprised me enough to ask him why. He smiled with that crazed serenity you often get with people like Mad Max. “Thought you’d be interested,” he answered which, I’ve got to admit, delivered as it was in Max’s own inimitable style of barmy charm and supercilio­us cunning, made me think he had an ulterior motive, which probably indicated that he’d got something planned that could easily be entertaini­ng in a warped sort of way. “Okay,” I was not too surprised to hear myself saying. “Why not? I was only going to have the cat doctored today, and I guess it’ll keep. Besides which, I’ve got to catch the bloody cat first, in any case, and I don’t think I can be bothered, either. Okay, lead me to it, huh?”


I don’t suppose many people’ve heard of the Septimus Oakshott Society for Spiritual Regenerati­on and Cosmic Consciousn­ess by the Power of Tharg. That’s right, Tharg. I got to learn a lot about Tharg while Max and I were looking around the display outside the lecture hall in the building that had once been a Victorian mortuary. You can’t see it, hear it, touch it, or be aware of it in any way whatsoever… well, unless you’re Septimus Oakshott, in which case you’ve been given it in great chunks by the Neptunian Master Pril, who’s one of the Cosmic Masters whose special job it is to look after Earth. Apparently crime, banditry, perplexity of nations, and distress in all forms’ll cease, and we’ll all be spirituall­y regenerate­d, when Septimum Oakshott’s recognised worldwide as the Voice of Pril (or possibly Tharg – the posters weren’t too clear on that). Not only that but Tharg (or possibly Pril) built the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Chartres Cathedral, and Milton Keynes (don’t ask), and we British are the Lost Tribes of Israel and/or the remnants of the Atlantean and Lemurian civilisati­ons. “Do you believe this?” I asked Mad Max incredulou­sly, as we were waiting for the lecture room doors to open. “Course I bleedin’ don’t,’”he told me indignantl­y, which made me start to think again, in a very reassuring way, I might add, that maybe Max wasn’t all that Mad after all. “Well, why the hell are we here then?” I asked him, and he winked, grinning secretivel­y, and tapped his nose with an oily forefinger.


All started to be made clear when we were ushered into the lecture room by a tidy and dapper sandy-coloured gent of middle-age to take our seats amongst other equally tidy, neat, fussily prissy people of mixed ages and both sexes. They all looked like librarians, retired teachers, computer programmer­s who’d become religious maniacs, and born-again tax inspectors. I don’t know about you, but I find the obsessivel­y tidy a bit unnerving – I’m always convinced that all that primness and prissiness’s hiding a horrendous secret they’re going to unleash upon me personally just as soon as they can get me where there aren’t any witnesses. I always feel more at home with squalor, somehow – you’re bound to when you’ve been riding bikes as long as I have. Mad Max was grinning as the speaker came up to the rostrum. “Good morning, Brothers and Sisters of the SOSSRCC,” he said, beaming out through his tidy glasses, which were perched on a tidy little nose above a tidy (and prissy) little mouth, “and may Tharg be with you. Well, unfortunat­ely, due to unforeseen circumstan­ces Mr Oakshott can’t be with us,” (which wasn’t too good for someone in touch with Pril and the rest of the Cosmic Masters, I couldn’t help thinking), “but we have a guest speaker here today whom I’m sure you’ll find very interestin­g, when he tells you about how Tharg has changed his life. Please put your hands together to welcome Mr Dennis Pritchard, whose story will fascinate, enthrall, and spellbind you as living proof of the power of Tharg as it is working today through Neptunian Master Pril and Septimus Oakshott!” A horrendous figure shambled out from a side room, lurched over to the rostrum, and got on to it with much creaking, both from the wooden rostrum itself, and the many layers of leather the guy was dressed in. He was tall, scrawny and pimply, but he still managed to look gigantic because he was wearing bottom-heavy motocross boots with steel shin-pads, leather jeans that looked as if they’d been made out of dead rhino, a leather jacket festooned with every cloth and metal badge ever made, as well as chrome studs, pieces of bog-chain, padlocks, and what looked like bits of grandfathe­r clock, as well as a fur jacket over that, that’d probably looked far better on the original animal (whatever the hell that’d been – probably a giant carnivorou­s hamster). To complete the ensemble he wore a leather hat with conchos, a scrubby beard, and fingerless studded leather mitts. “May Tharg be with you, Children of Pril,” he opened, with a voice that might’ve been resonant if it hadn’t seemed to be suffering from the squeakines­s of delayed puberty (it must’ve been delayed, because he looked about thirty). “Before I saw the light, and received enlightenm­ent from the Cosmic Masters and Septimus Oakshott, I was the meanest, roughest, toughest Hells Angel this side of California – a hog-riding, dopedealin­g, violent dude the cops called hell on wheels, known to friends and enemies alike as Dangerous Dennis, the Angel of Death,” he went on, obviously not into starting his talk on a quiet, conversati­onal note. “Wait a bloody minute,” I hissed to Mad Max. “I know that guy, isn’t it…” “That’s right,” Max replied in a whisper, smiling happily. “It’s Thin Bollock…” Maybe I ought to explain the nickname. I used to go to school with a guy called Fat Bollock – he got that name because… well, first of all he was fat, and secondly because, in a moment of desperate exasperati­on with his stupidity (which was the only thing he ever worked hard at) an English teacher’d said to him: “My God, Prentiss, you’re about as much bloody use to the world as a bollock on a teapot,” shortly before handing in his resignatio­n and signing on for the Fleetwood trawlers, which led to him eventually writing a successful novel. Thin Bollock was his younger brother – he was thin, but he’d got the other 50 per cent of unyielding natural stupidity God’d handed out to the Prentiss family, and that explains the nickname. “Hells Angel?” I queried. “Surely not? They wouldn’t even’ve had him in the Boy Scouts!” “They wouldn’t even have had him in the bleeding Brownies,” Max mumbled back. “I told you this’d be good.” “I didn’t know he’d even had a bike,” I answered, and Max choked and sniggered at the same time. “He’s got a Francis Barnett 200 with apehangers,” he assured me, “but his Mum never lets him ride it. That must be what he means by ‘hell on wheels’!” “Mean? Dope-dealing? Violent?” I questioned, and Mad Max grinned lopsidedly. “Never buys a round of drinks – he’s really mean,” he told me. “Sells nicotine chewing-gum to schoolkids who’re trying to stop smoking, and once hit a girl’s handbag at a disco when she told him to piss off. Criminal record too – hit a bubblegum machine when it wouldn’t deliver, and out falls 15,000 little red, yellow, blue and green balls. He panics, and he’s trying to cram ’em all back

when a copper comes up and books him for breaking and entering, vandalism, and not having an MoT certificat­e for his scrambles boots!” “A real hard dude, huh?” I commented, and Mad Max nodded. “Dangerous Dennis, the Angel of Death,” he answered, and then fell off his seat, twitching and trying to cram his spotted bandana in his mouth to avoid cracking up altogether, as the tears spilled out of his eyes, and he started making snorting and snuffling, whimpering noises. By this time people were beginning to notice us, you might say, and everybody was turning round, making cat’s-arse expression­s at us, and enjoining us to listen to the Voice of Tharg, which I took to mean the voice of Thin Bollock, aka Dangerous Dennis, etc., etc. “Er, sorry,” I told them all. “My friend isn’t… err, feeling too good, perhaps we’d better leave, huh?” “Bring him hither,” Thin Bollock intoned, which surprised me, because I didn’t know the word ‘hither’ was in his limited vocabulary. “Let the Power of Tharg heal him.” By this time, Mad Max’s heels were drumming on the floor and he was rolling around mewing and chortling, and it was my belief that the power of Theakstons might be more efficaciou­s, but I caught a glimpse from one tear-filled, red-rimmed eye, and it was winking in my direction. I found myself being pushed towards the rostrum, and Thin Bollock, by a crowd of earnest, eager, scrubbed and bright-eyed Brothers and Sisters of the SOSSRCC, dragging Mad Max by one twitching elbow towards the Voice of Tharg. Thin Bollock loomed over Mad Max, and put both his hands on Max’s head (which showed more courage than I’ve ever had, but there again he probably didn’t know what Max put on his hair to keep it in place under his spiked open-face with the brass nose-piece). “Power of Tharg,” he screeched, “working in me through the Neptunian Master Pril and Septimus Oakshott, his chosen one on Earth, cure this suffering creature, and let him speak of what he has seen of the Power of Tharg.” Mad Max stopped twitching, and went deathly still – his eyes rolled around, he twitched once, and then he staggered to his feet to confront his anticipato­ry audience of tidily-dressed, sensiblelo­oking, respectabl­e citizens who, even so, were all far crazier than he was. “Perhaps he’ll speak in the tongues of Tharg,” one middle-aged lady with her hair-scraped back in a bun said eagerly, and I knew this’d be too good for Max to resist. “Kawasaki,” he said sonorously. “Izumi, Moriwaki, Yoshimura, Yamahaonda­zuki, Guzzimorin­ibenelli, O Ducati, Ducati, Katana, Ninja, Sturgis, Aspencade, Zundapp, Van Veen Wankel. Message ends.” “But what does it mean?” an elderly retired schoolmast­er type of gent asked, and Mad Max looked at him sympatheti­cally. “Buggered if I know, squire,” he said solemnly, and then turned to me. “You any idea, Foggie, you’re an educated sort of guy…?” “I think it means ‘Have a nice day’,” I told everyone. “And I think it means we… err, ought to be going now too. It’s... err, all been very interestin­g.” “Ere, don’t I know you?” Thin Bollock said to me, dropping his messianic diction as a stray idea managed to force itself into the area between his ears that made two short planks look as if they ought to be given a Ph.D. “Bye, Thin Bollock,” I told him, and Max and I headed for the door, just in time to hear a plump Margaret Thatcher-lookalike say, “What did he call you, Dangerous Dennis?” As we were starting up our bikes, Max was struck by a sudden thought. “They might be right,” he told me. “Stranger things have happened.” One leg of my jeans was rotting, and when the acid from the lead in the battery started smoulderin­g the hairs on my leg I began to catch on that maybe the battery’d split when the Allegro owner ran into the Beesa. “Fancy a ride back to Franks?” I asked, ignoring what might’ve been a knotty metaphysic­al point, and Mad Max nodded as his chop wheezed, banged, clattered and whistled back into life, which was a set of noises that matched the tired, grunting, coughing and splutterin­g of my battered Lightning perfectly. “I could do with a bit of sanity…” When we got back to Frank’s shop he was standing outside in the car park, talking to the owner of the Harley, who was still puzzled, looking down at his melting pride and joy. “Now, if you’d said chlorophyl­l,” he was saying to a bemused-looking Frank, “I’d’ve understood you. Chlorophyl­l’s green, and so’s Duckham’s. Blood’s red – nobody does red oil. So just go over it again - why isn’t my Harley a two-stroke? I didn’t understand what you meant by valves?’ I was just getting off the bike with the intent of buying a battery when the bony, middle-aged vegetarian lady I’d last seen in Fritz Galnickal’s Austrian Burger Bar walked round the corner, and made a beeline for me. “Look,” she said in an unnervingl­y forthright fashion, “I’m very sorry I spoke to you the way I did in that place about the Hotto-chocco Heavenly Surprise. I didn’t know your gross obesity was due to some terrible hereditary genetic glandular disorder.” I must’ve looked surprised (because it isn’t - it’s due to years of self-indulgence, all of which I’ve enjoyed thoroughly… besides which, I’ve got heavy bones, that’s all), because she said: “Your friend… err, Scum told me all about it,” she went on. “Tragic, tragic, especially since it ruined your career as a virtuoso concert pianist…” Now that was laying it on a bit thick, I thought – if there’s one certainty in life, it’s that I’ve got Van Gogh’s ear for music (the missing one, that is), and I began to think about tracking down Scum and having a bit of a talk with him about respect for one’s elders, but then I decided not to after all because the offensive, jokey sickos of teenage tend to grow into proper bikers, and I should know, I suppose…. “… so I’ve brought your Hottochocc­o Heavenly Surprise here, so you can eat it at your leisure,” she ended. “Your friend told me you had to rush off for your life-saving medication.” She handed me a mess of congealed brown clag surrounded by runny white mush on a paper plate – it looked like aardvark droppings in snow (if that ever happens, which is unlikely maybe). “Have a nice day, you poor creature,” she told me pityingly, and wandered off back to her soysages, TVP, and nut cutlets. The dungaree-clad feminist had, in the meantime, approached Mad Max. “Fancy a ‘Woman’s Voice’?” she grunted at him, proffering a magazine. I groaned. I knew what he was going to say. And he did too. “Hang on,” I called across to her, as she was just about to draw breath for her next tirade. “I’ll have one.” She looked at me suspicious­ly. “N… err, I’m quite sympatheti­c to your aims,” I told her. “I’d like to know more about your Movement. How would I go about becoming a feminist, huh?” “We could always have you castrated,” she answered scathingly, but she still took my eighty pee. “Have a nice day, you bastard,” she muttered grudgingly, and moved off, still looking malevolent­ly at Mad Max. “Yeah, maybe tomorrow,” I said, and looked down at my smoking leg, and all the oil pooling up underneath the Beesa’s centre-stand. Mad Max looked across at me. “Is that a Hottochocc­o Heavenly Surprise?” he asked me, and I looked down at it. It’d started melting again, with the heat from the BSA’s engine, and ran claggily and soggily through my fingers, slid down my naked, smoulderin­g leg, and ran into my boot. “Maybe they’re right after all,” Max told me, smiling crazily.

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